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Plan calls for razing historic Park Street buildings for Ayer parking lot

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AYER — Several historical Park Street structures would need to be demolished if and when work to build a $4 million expanded Rail Trail parking lot proceeds in downtown Ayer. On Wednesday night, Montachusett Regional Planning Commission Transportation Project Director George Kahale sough the blessing of the Ayer Historical Commission for confirmation that the commission would not oppose the razing of the structures.

The first property to be leveled is located at 15 Park Street (Route 2A) in the form of a vacant single family home located across the street from Dunkin’ Donuts that dates back to 1850. Ayer’s Economic Development Director David Maher reported to the commission that the building’s owner has vocalized intent to sell the building. The house is “uninhabitable, with no light, heat or water,” said Maher in a memo to the commission.

The next building to be razed is the former La Sita restaurant at 13 Park Street. The building dates to the 1970s and so is not considered to be of historical significance per se.

Next to come down would be the Nu-Kar used car shop at 7 & 11 Park Street. Built in the 1940s, the commission expressed some feeling that the building, due to its age, is eligible for documentation in the town’s historical structure inventory.

And then there’s the conjoined shops at 3 & 5 Park Street owned by Phil Berry and presently housing both a nail salon and a sporting goods store. Commission member Alene Reich, who is an architectural historian, said the connected store fronts would be “worth documenting” along with the 1850s home and Nu-Kar site.

Despite past talk that Berry might be a hold out, Maher reported to the commission “all the other parcel/building owners have expressed their interest to sell their [Park Street] properties as well in support of the project.”

Berry is a critical land owner, however, for key linkage of commuters entering and exiting Depot Square to access the platform. Berry owns the parking lot off Main Street which commuters traverse daily now to access the train.

Berry had been unsuccessfully lobbied in prior years by former selectmen to sell an easement for guaranteed pedestrian access to the train platform before the parking project could proceed. Kahale said that, at this time, no such negotiations were possible or afoot with any real property owners until funding is authorized for this Federal Transit Authority (FTA) project.

When Historical Commission member Barry Schwarzel asked what would happen if one property owner refused to sell, Kahale said the lot would be reconfigured around that parcel but in any event the lot would still be constructed.The end goal is an expanded, open-air Rail Trail parking lot (and not a parking garage or deck as had been contemplated in earlier iterations of the same plan that’s bounced around the town for several years). The plan is for an increase in parking capacity at an expanded lot from 80 to 200 cars. The project proposes a $4 million price tag, including the use of $3.15 million in a federal earmark set aside by former Congressman Martin Meehan for Ayer’s commuter rail parking needs.

Reich said the Park Street corridor is historically significant to Ayer in that it was a railroad junction (originally called “Groton Junction” – linking east/west rail service with a spur jogging northward to New Hampshire. The town’s oldest home – the Park House attached to the NAPA Auto Parts Store – is also on Park Street.

But in and of themselves, the targeted buildings aren’t historically significant structures that would prevent their demolition, Reich opined. The collective commission reserved immediate judgment on the matter in order to deliberate over the request. Maher offered to draft the commission a letter of recommendation for the consideration at the commission’s next monthly meeting at Ayer Town Hall on Wed., Feb. 8 at 7 p.m.

Reich added that it may be nice to have panels erected at any eventual parking lot which pay homage to the buildings erected but demolished along Part Street. Kahale agreed – Park Street was historically located near that’s town’s “transportation station or hub.”

Kahale presented the commission with three draft sketches on how the lot could be configured to accommodate 200 cars. When Nashoba Publishing took pictures of the sketches during the public hearing, Kahale stated a desire that no photos be taken before asking Maher to hustle the sketches from the room. Final sketches will come from an architect and engineer, neither of which has been retained since an RFP for those services has not yet issued for the project.