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Natick: town Drops Plan to Bid for Armory
The Boston Globe, January 9, 2005
Alison O’Leary Murray, Globe Correspondent

Condos, an antiques warehouse, a fitness club, and a dog day-care center are among the uses that have been suggested for the former National Guard Armory in Natick.

But a town-owned senior center or community center is not one of the options. Natick officials will not be bidding when the property is auctioned Jan. 19.

The town had managed to get the auction postponed twice, but officials at the state Division of Capital Asset Management refused to give the property to the town for free. And the state refused to allow the town to test the site for environmental contamination.

Kevin Flanigan, a spokesman for the Division of Capital Asset Management, said the state sells such properties “as is.”

The nearly 90-year-old armory is a brick, fortress-like building on Route 135, abutting town-owned property that was the subject of a planning study that concluded last fall. The study gave town officials several options for redevelopment, some that included the armory site. Most options call for adding housing to the town-owned site along with a new senior center to replace one already there.

So far, town officials have not acted on the task force recommendations, except to skip the armory auction.

“We won’t be bidding because the state won’t allow us to do a Chapter 21E and we can’t afford to take the risk,” John Ciccariello, selectmen chairman, said, referring to environmental tests that would determine whether the site is polluted and could help estimate cleanup costs.

Contamination could be costly to clean up or limit future uses of the property, said Natick’s environmental compliance officer, Bob Bois, who previously worked as an official of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Tearing down the building or using it for housing could trigger cleanup requirements under state law, he said.

“Based on past uses of the property, [contamination] is a question the town definitely needed to get answered,” said Bois.

The state had a program about 10 years ago that identified and cleaned pollution from many state-owned sites, but Bois said he was unable to find any records on armories.

That leaves prospective buyers, who can visit the site from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday, to wonder and weigh their options.

One Natick man raised questions about what might be found in the garage space under the building, where he said the Guard once parked and serviced eight to 10 Jeeps, a weapons carrier, and at least two other large trucks.

“When we worked there, there were no oil cans to dispose things in. They just dumped stuff. It’s got to be contaminated,” said Sebastian Grupposo, a lifelong resident who signed up for the National Guard at the Natick Armory in 1937 and worked in the building from 1949 to 1959.

One of Grupposo’s later jobs with the Guard was to inventory Guard property housed in armories, so he has been in most of them across the state, he said. He said the buildings have been poorly maintained and they should not be saved out of nostalgia.

“The state is like towns, they don’t take care of anything,” he said.

Natick’s community development director, Sarkis Sarkisian, said many people have asked about potential uses for the armory.

The 34,180-square-foot lot is zoned administrative/professional, which means a special permit would be necessary for many uses other than office space.

The size of the lot brings up questions about parking, Sarkisian said.

Since the Guard used the basement for parking, no outside parking lot was necessary. But if a developer wants to create housing 10 units are allowed by right, and 12 could be constructed under a new affordable housing district that’s a hurdle that must be overcome.

While Flanigan would not speculate on the price the building could bring, he said the location is desirable and many potential buyers have sought information, which is available on the auctioneer’s website at www.bermanauctions.com.

The state has sold only one armory to a municipality. The town of Southbridge paid $680,000 plus $50,000 in fees to take over a one-story brick building that abuts 20 acres of town-owned playing fields. Town Manager Clayton Carlisle said the 1960-era building is likely to become a community center.

“We knew we were getting it as-is, and knew that some deleading had been done there in the past. We believed the risks to the town were manageable,” Carlisle said.

“We saw it as our armory and were disappointed that the state had not given towns a chance to pick up properties that towns often gave to the state for almost nothing.”

Many in Natick have mixed feelings about the structure that groups have rented for concerts, community breakfasts, and flea markets in the past.

“I would like to see it as a community space,” said Sarkisian. “But we just can’t take the chance. You can’t say we didn’t try.”

©2005 Globe Newspaper Company

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