Planning Board debates great 'wall' in art center projectArchitect, engineer argue CMCA project meets zoning ordinance
Rockland — The architect and engineer presenting plans for the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art on Winter Street argued before the Planning Board Feb. 11 that the project meets city requirements.
After a lengthy presentation including detailed models, drawings of the proposed building, and an explanation of the materials to be used, New York City architect Hye-Young Chung and engineer Will Gartley were questioned by Planning Board members about a long wall along one side of the proposed building.
"I would hate to see us lose this whole project over this," CMCA Director Suzette McAvoy said. "This meets the ordinance."
The nonprofit CMCA plans to move from its longtime location in the Rockport firehouse to 21 Winter St. The plans call for replacing the existing building, the one-time Fireproof Garage Co., with a new city landmark, a building that incorporates a contemporary design.
Drawings presented show an outdoor courtyard with small trees, a glassed-in lobby facing the street and a large exhibition building with a saw-tooth roof and north-facing skylights to take advantage of natural daylight.
The center would have 5,000 square feet of exhibition space, a gift shop, ArtLab (for art education) and a lecture hall.
George Terrien of the planning board, echoing his comments from a previous meeting, complained one wall is too long and blank, and said it does not meet the requirements for the downtown zone and more recently added Tillson Avenue overlay rules.
He said the wall would not invite pedestrians to walk down Winter Street beyond the CMCA area because it is not broken up with doorways and windows in the same way now demonstrated by Main Street storefronts. He also said the wall, which he compared to a billboard, would invite graffiti.
Terrien said the wall was more suited to a warehouse or factory.
Chung said that to meet those requirements, a fixed canopy has been added along the length of the wall and sills, lintels and cornices have been incorporated into the building design throughout, meeting the specific standards of standing more than 3 inches out from the structure, and vertical piers or lines have been articulated along the wall to break up the surface of the wall.
McAvoy explained the uninterrupted wall is needed to allow exhibition space for artwork inside the center.
Chung said that wherever a person stands on the street, they will see more than the wall. They will see the courtyard and trees, the glassed-in entrance and activity within.
Gartley said having CMCA will draw people to Winter Street and the wall will be a non-issue. "I am amazed this has become such an issue," he said.
According to information provided by Terrien, the Tillson Avenue Area Overlay Additional Standards lists preferred building materials as brick, stone, or wooden clapboard, or materials similar in appearance, texture, quality, and scale to these materials, for buildings fronting a public street.
"These design standards are intended to require the use of traditional architectural elements, but not to impose any particular architectural style or to foreclose modern design that invokes, but does mimic, the historic Downtown architecture in Rockland," the standards state.
It was noted at one point in the meeting that the standards also favor architecture in keeping with other downtown buildings built before 1941. Some in attendance argued the standards are self-contradictory.
Board member Kyle Swan agreed with Terrien, saying he liked the overall design of the building, but wanted to see different designs presented to deal with the wall.
Others on the board disagreed. William Bodine felt the design requirements were overly restrictive and "paternalistic." Abbie Knicklebein said she did not believe the proposed building would be out of character with the surrounding community. She compared the proposed wall to walls at Dowling Walsh gallery and Atlantic Baking Co.
Chairman Erik Laustsen noted the CMCA is known not only as a museum, but for its work with students and education. He felt it may help in offsetting the wall's size if the city widens the sidewalk and plants some trees along Winter Street.
Connie Hayes, a trustee of the Farnsworth Art Museum, criticized the wall during the public comment portion of the meeting. She said she was speaking for herself as a resident and not for museum. She said she welcomes CMCA with great enthusiasm to Rockland, but added criticism of the design.
"I do not understand why the CMCA design continues to propose a wall along Winter Street that does not appear to meet the code of Rockland's downtown overlay zone," she said. "...Please give us more than a wall along our sidewalks."
She favored more multi-story storefront buildings going down this street to include more businesses and generate more tax dollars.
Charles Jordan spoke in favor of the CMCA project, saying it will be a tremendous magnet for the city. He said he does not see anything wrong with the design, and believes having the center there will make all of the other acres on Tillson Avenue all the more valuable.
Former mayor Brian Harden spoke in favor of the project. He was on the council when standards were considered for the 2005 Tillson Avenue and Downtown Overlay Zone. He said he questioned at the time whether there was enough flexibility in the standards so that projects of exceptional merit could be considered. He said language should have been included in the standards to allow exceptions for exceptionally important projects that meet the spirit and intent of the standards.
"If we don't make it possible for this economic engine to come into that part of the community then we will have looked a gift horse in the mouth in the worst possible way; the whole community will suffer because we will not become the art destination that we could," Harden said.
He challenged the City Council to step forward to change the standards to give the Planning Board more flexibility.
Winter Street was known for three things, he said, giving a little of the history: it was the office for Bud Wood's bus line, which went to Thomaston and Camden; it was a street of warehouses, none of them with windows; "and it was known for the fireproof garage, which, in case you're interested in the historical perspective," he added, "had three fires during its existence."
"You're talking about the upper edge of the warehouse zone, where Bicknell's, where O'Hara's, where other businesses have been building buildings without windows for 100 years."
He said we don't need to have storefronts on Winter Street where we have had our fireproof garage.
The meeting was a pre-application discussion, so no decision on the project was made.
Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.