Move or expand?
As village looks to build emergency services at Pius X, some residents advocate expansion at existing buildings
SARANAC LAKE — The village board is considering undertaking a large-scale $27 million project, which would see the former Pius X high school building on Petrova Avenue expanded and converted into a new emergency services building for the fire, rescue and police departments.
But the project has proved controversial. Some residents are raising concerns about whether Petrova Avenue is the right place for the new building, while others question whether such a large building is needed to house the departments. On Tuesday, residents hashed out their concerns and ideas at an informational hearing after open houses at the current firehouse rescue squad and police headquarters.
It was a time for big questions. Mayor Jimmy Williams is describing this proposed building as a “100 year solution” for emergency services. That being the case, there are major concerns among residents about doing it the right way, in the right place.
Many neighbors of the land and village residents have voiced concerns — they worried that the location is wrong, the price tag is too big, the building is too large, it would change the character of the neighborhood or that it would change the natural environment.
While opponents called this site a “non-starter,” village officials feel it is their only option.
Efforts to improve, expand or relocate the firehall date back to the 1980s. SLVFD Chief Brendan Keough said there’s been missed opportunities over the years. The year after the village conducted a 2012 study to be eligible for firehouse grants, that grant program ended. Former Mayor Bill Madden said when he was leading the village, he wanted to improve the firehall, but the village had a lot of projects going on at the time and “the taxpayer couldn’t afford it.”
The village has looked at several locations over the years — 400 Broadway, the National Guard armory, the site of Kinney Drugs, the village sandlot. Each have their own issues, according to Keough,
Keough said this Petrova Avenue property is the best opportunity they’ve seen so far and he is excited to finally have a viable location.
For the past year, the village had been looking at potentially co-locating the three departments at the firehouse property on Broadway, but were struggling to find the room. The Pius X building becoming available changed everything, and fast, Williams said.
Some residents said they were caught off guard by this big choice happening so quickly and felt the village did not announce its shift in attention to the community. Williams said they’ve been providing the public information as they get it.
“We haven’t been in the room,” village resident Mary Thill said.
The project committee thus far has been village and department officials meeting with design experts. But, eventually, Williams said community members will be welcomed on the committee.
Keough feels there has been misinformation about how fast this is moving. He said the process is just starting and the village is already bringing the public in. He also said he hears lots of support for the new proposed location.
Keough said he has looked at land all over the village, and this is the only location that really works.
There’s even been disagreement at times within the firehouse. Fire Driver Rick Yorkey was initially dead-set against moving — for almost 40 years, 100 Broadway has been his home, literally. He estimates he’s spent three quarters of his life there.
“I’ve probably been here more than at my own house,” he said.
He’s on duty 72 hours a week, on 24 hour shifts, for the past 39 years. He eats, sleeps, works, showers, relaxes and takes care of the firehouse dog Smokey there. So with all that history and memories, he didn’t want to move.
“Over Rick’s dead body,” Keough said.
But when he saw the designs for the building overlaid on each site, he said he changed his mind.
Yorkey said firefighters 40 years from now will either be thanking them or cursing them for the firehouse they build.
“The old girl has served us well,” Keough said, patting a railing of the building. “She doesn’t owe this village anything.”
Part of the building was built in the 1800s, back in the horse and buggy days of the fire department.
The plans for and state of the project can be viewed on the village’s website at https://bit.ly/3zj0AQo. The architecture firm Wendel Five Bugels Design, which the village is contracting, is expected to deliver a final concept report by the end of April.
Petrova Avenue site
The village has not purchased the land from Citizen Advocates yet, but it has signed an early occupancy agreement to allow the Hhott House garden center, which is now privately owned, to continue to operate there.
The village is under contract to purchase 15 acres of land and two buildings for $350,000. Williams said this is an “insane” price.
When the property first hit the market at a price of $500,000 without the additional acreage or Hhott House, interest was immediate and multiple tours were scheduled within 24 hours, Williams said. But Citizen Advocates agreed to sell more for less if it went to the village.
Pius X building is not a sure location for the building, though the village is pursuing it hard. There’s a lot that could block the building from happening there. There are federal wetlands on the property; any building would need review and approval from the state Department of Transportation, Adirondack Park Agency, Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, State Environmental Quality Review Act and National Environmental Policy Act; a new access road to state Route 3 would need to be paved and some village residents have stated they are considering suing the village.
Village officials were asked if approval for the new road is a “make-or-break” need for the building. Sort of, Williams said. He did not commit to that, but said it is a very important part.
Because winter is still around, they can’t do a site survey until the spring. Village resident Mark Wilson said that should have been done before drawing up these plans. He also said the village should have conducted a SEQR process before any of this, because that process “guarantees open government.”
If this site doesn’t work, Williams said it could be used for many other things by the village or sold for a profit.
Village resident Doug Haney said the village should look at all potential uses for the Petrova Avenue property and decide the best option then. He felt the village is “jumping the gun” by pushing so hard for the emergency building there.
There were only a few visitors to the firehouse for the open house on Tuesday, but Wilson was one of them. He’s been one of the most vocal opponents of the new location and believes the departments should expand where they are. There are conflicting interpretations of previous village studies on if they can feasibly do this.
Wherever the fire department lands, Wilson plans to be a part of it. He picked up an application form while touring the firehouse on Tuesday after hearing about how they need new members to keep the volunteer service going.
After 20 years of living in the village, Wilson said he wanted to “put some muscle where my mouth is.” The department is a good organization that does good work, he said.
Wilson said there’s no doubt the fire department needs a better home and that the mayor was wise to purchase the Petrova Avenue property for the price the village got it for. But he feels that location is not right for that use and that use is not right for that location. He also said the village should do more to consider more options before settling on this location.
Cost and space concerns
It would take a lot of money to rehab the high school building, with estimates currently costing upwards of $27 million.
Wilson said he believes the village is being “taken for a ride” by Wendel. He called the project a “big payday” for the company. Wendel bills itself as a “one-stop-shop” for design, planning and numerous other in-house services.
He asked the village to also have Wendel calculate the cost per square foot for rehabilitating the existing facilities. The village has not estimated costs of expanding at existing sites, because they don’t believe it’s feasible.
Firefighters don’t feel they can expand back further. With the construction of the 70-apartment Saranac Lofts complex and PlayADK children’s museum, they said there’s not much space to expand back, even with the land the village purchased last year and if they purchased the former Adirondack Tire lot.
Williams said building the three departments together will make for large initial savings. But Wilson said “never accept a gift that eats.”
He pointed out, a larger building costs more to heat, cool and electrify. Wendel’s Director of Emergency Services Robert Krzyzanowski said the large site could allow the village to use solar or geothermal energy in the future, though.
Existing firehouse issues
While there are disagreements about location, one thing everyone agreed on is that emergency services need adequate facilities and their current facilities are in great need of improvement.
They’ve packed every inch of the fire station with supplies. A training rappelling wall stands in the back of the garage. The cascade system for filling oxygen tanks is in a garage, where trucks emit carbon monoxide, which could infiltrate the system, Keough said, and it should be in its own room. The air dryer rack for their turnout gear is in the meeting room because they had nowhere else to put it. When the blowers are on, it sprays cancer-causing particles all around the meeting room. It should also have its own room Keough said.
For Keough, the size is a big factor. Firefighting requires more equipment than before and trucks are only getting bigger. One of the trucks had to be custom built shorter to fit inside the garage doors, he said.
To move fire trucks, other trucks must be moved first. If those key trucks don’t start, they’re all stuck.
When the department got a new 76,000 pound truck in 2016, they worried the floor could not hold the weight. They filled the 6-foot tall basement section below with flowable concrete. But now, years later, the floor is visibly sinking. There are gaps in the paint where the wall meets the floor and an inch-high lip between that floor and the neighboring garage. Keough said those floors were level in 2016.
Gooey strands of salt hang from the basement ceiling, evidence of the cracks in the floor where liquid seeps through.
“Stalactites,” Keough called them.
The basement ceiling has beams all over, spanning decades and material from wood to steel. Keough said they’ve just kept adding and adding more support beams to hold the weight of the garage.
There’s still charred black boards on the basement back wall from multiple fires at the Branch and Callanan mill.
Expanding at the Broadway location also doesn’t solve several of their problems, Keough said.
The apron leading to the street where trucks pull out is very short and busy with pedestrian traffic. Keough said kids and adults on bikes, motor chairs, scooters, snowmobiles try to “beat the trucks” pulling out for emergencies.
“The fact that someone hasn’t been hit and killed is a miracle,” Keough said.
Village officials were asked why there’s a focus on combined departments. Wendel was only asked to assess combined building sites. Williams said the police department is limited in how it can expand in the historic 1 Main St. building and remain compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Wilson countered that, citing a 2012 village study, he believes it could expand there.
Wilson said he thinks removing police from the combined building footprint could make expanding at the Broadway location possible, increase their options and save costs.
Wilson said the police are currently located where the action is — near the heart of the village where there are events, housing and businesses. To get to the proposed department site would require a car or walking up a long hill, he said.
But village officials also said the police are in a congested area, making responding during high-traffic times difficult.
Piper Mallach, a high school student on the village police interface committee, said she liked the proposed location.
“Having the police seen and visible by the youth in this community, especially with everything happening in the world right now. Having them nearby … eases a lot of fears,” Mallach said.
It’s a big building being proposed, the largest structure since the construction of the high school, Wilson said, comparable to the size of three Saranac Lake Civic Centers. Williams pointed out that the rescue department’s district is the largest in New York and the fire district is one of the largest in the state.
The existing Pius X building is almost 39,000 square feet and with additional garages for vehicles, the final building currently is estimated at around 70,000 square feet.
Square foot estimates for each department were based on requests from department chiefs for their needs. They say they are planning for the future, too. They’ll always need new equipment, and sometimes that equipment gets larger over time.
The building is too big for the need, Wilson said. He said 375 square feet per police officer is recommended in the village’s 2012 study, but this would make for 1,000 square feet per officer. The building has space for two K-9 units. Though the department does not have dogs right now, they hope to in the future.
A large portion of the square footage is taken up by the 5,000 square foot former high school gym.
Keough said the gym is a “bonus” — but it also improves locals’ ISO rating, a measurement of how well a fire department can protect property that insurance companies use to set rates. The gym allows them to train on-site more.
Volunteer numbers are down, and the department can’t survive without them. Keough said the department currently has 37 members. At one point they had 60. Keough said firefighters need basic and interior training. But they can’t do them here, so they travel to Westville, three nights a week for three months, which is tough for anyone with a job or family. Not a great welcome to the department, he said.
And the gym doubles as a disaster shelter. Keough said the disaster area used to be the firehall and the village does not have an adequate one now.
“The weather is changing. There is no doubt. Extreme weather events are happening more often,” he said.
Thill and Haney quietly wondered why the Civic Center wouldn’t work.
The village’s discussions about this building are far from over. There is still a lot more work to be done to see if the proposed site is feasible, if the community wants the departments to move and finally, to build new facilities after decades of waiting.