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NEWS & PRESS

07.29.2004
BOSTON GLOBE - Armory Building to be Put on Block

A familiar Chelsea building that provided training space for generations of National Guard members could soon have a new owner.

State officials on Aug. 11 plan to auction the former Chelsea Armory and about 1.1 acres of the land on which the Spencer Avenue building sits.

The armory was among nine that the Massachusetts National Guard announced last year it was closing by the end of the year.

Six armories to date have been sold at auction. Three others, including the Chelsea building, are scheduled to be sold at the Aug. 11 auction, which will be held at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel, according to Martha McMahon, an attorney for the state Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM).

McMahon said the highest bidder will claim the Chelsea Armory. The state is not imposing any requirement regarding the future use of the site, including whether the armory building has to remain.

The only condition is that before any renovation or demolition of the building, the buyer must notify the state's Military Division. The agency, which oversees the Guard, would have authority to remove any military items it deems to have historic value.

McMahon said the 1.1 acres is only a portion of the overall state-owned armory site. Not included in the sale is about a half-acre of the site that includes a building now leased by the Suffolk County sheriff's office as a training facility.

Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash said that the city is disappointed that the state has not involved it in the process of disposing of the building.

"They haven't consulted us at all," he said, noting that city officials only learned that the armory was for sale when they noticed a sign posted on the building.

"It would have been nice to have been engaged in dialogue which would have led to the city and state working together to find a use productive for all parties concerned," he said.

McMahon said that state lawmakers established an expedited procedure for selling surplus state properties under a law adopted last year. She said DCAM is complying with those procedures with the sale of the Chelsea Armory.

The process "does not provide for consultation with the community," she said. It does require a community hearing, but only if the parcel is larger than two acres.

McMahon added that once a property is sold, future use is subject to local zoning and other rules, which gives the city or town a role to play in its development.

But Ash said his preference is to work with builders to shape a development plan, rather than having to rely on his zoning regulatory authority.

Ash said the city would prefer to see the site developed for residential use. He said that follows Chelsea's ongoing effort to "get industrial and commercial businesses out of residential neighborhoods." Most of the armory site is in a residential zone with some of it in an industrial zone.

It is unlikely that the city will bid on the property, Ash said, noting the tight fiscal climate and the limited time to put together a funding package.

Built in 1957, the 23,600-square-foot brick building was most recently home to the approximately 100-member Bravo Company of the 101st Engineer Battalion of the Army National Guard. With the closing of the armory, that unit has been relocated to Camp Curtis Guild, a National Guard facility in Reading, according to Captain Brad Leighton, a spokesman for the Massachusetts National Guard.

In an interview last fall, another Guard spokesman said the closing of the Chelsea armory and others was part of an effort by the Guard to become more efficient in a tight fiscal environment.

The spokesman, Captain Winfield Danielson, said the Guard has seen a significant reduction in membership since the end of the Cold War. Armory closings since then had not kept pace with the reduction in Guard members, leading to a 20 percent overcapacity of armory space in the state.

He said given the state's budget situation, "It's not really a prudent thing to be maintaining that overcapacity if you don't have to."

Ash said the armory has been a valuable resource to Chelsea over the years. During the Blizzard of '78, officials used it as an emergency command center. During other catastrophes, including Chelsea's great fire of 1973, it provided shelter for displaced residents.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Guard allowed the city to use the building as a site for its high school basketball games, according to Ash, who played in the armory himself as a member of the varsity team in the 1970s. Community organizations also used the building for recreational programs, as well as dances and banquets.

While some feel sentimental attachment to the building, Ash said it is not significant to the city whether the structure itself remains.

Jerome J. Manning, whose Yarmouthport companyJJManning Auctioneers is carrying out the auction, said he believes the property will attract interest from bidders.

"Chelsea is a desirable town. It's [close] to the city. The Big Dig is over. It has easy access to surrounding towns," he said, adding that the armory "is in great shape. It could be used for a lot of things, obviously within the zoning and what the city will allow." He said both residential and commercial developers toured the building at a recent open house.

Manning said he could not predict what the property, which the city assesses at $1.7 million, might bring at auction.

He said other recently auctioned armories have brought a range in prices: The Somerville armory sold for $2.6 million, the Waltham armory for $990,000, and the Holyoke armory for $25,000.