Durango’s 9-R District School Board voted unanimously June 28 to enter into an agreement to sell the 4.3-acre campus, including the historic 9-R Administration Building and Big Picture High School, to the Durango Fire District to serve as its administrative headquarters and house a new Fire Station 2, replacing the station located adjacent to River City Hall on Camino del Rio. The sale could be finalized within just a few weeks, according to school officials.
We’ve editorialized about this proposal before, yet it’ so important we feel warrants a second discussion.
Some people – besides Fire Chief Hal Doughty and school board members – undoubtedly think the sale is a good idea. The fire department has been ill housed since 1983 in what was supposed to be temporary quarters; the list of how it fails to meet needs is long, including the fact that parts of it violate existing fire code.
Doughty says he has looked for a new site for five years, including considering 19 different properties, and been unable to purchase any of them. Based on approximately 1,900 annual calls for fire, emergency medical services and other purposes, Station 2 needs to be downtown to facilitate fast service for its historic neighborhoods and commercial areas, he says.
Apparently, the fire district made the best financial offer when the school board put the buildings up for sale – although the board has not released the proposals it received and says it will do so only after sealing the deal.
But quite a few people, including neighborhood organizations and individuals, have protested that the 9-R site is not the place for the fire district. Fire trucks make a lot of noise – even if they wait until leaving the neighborhood to sound their sirens. They also take up a lot of room, likely necessitating loss of street parking, slowed traffic and possibly new traffic lights in the vicinity of the building.
According to the fire district’s plan, trucks will exit the newly constructed bays – which will replace the old Big Picture High School – on 12th Street and return via 13th Street, both of which bracket Buckley Park.
The school board is negotiating to separate Buckley from the property and sell it to the city, a topic of longstanding discussion, to make sure the park remains a park. It is the site of the city’s most popular annual events and high pedestrian and cyclist traffic make it a less than ideal for emergency vehicle traffic on adjacent streets.
Further, the fire district actually doesn’t seem to need as much space as the two buildings would offer. Doughty has said he would invite the school district and other groups to use remodeled meeting spaces, including the old auditorium.
Some say the deal would be a wash in the sense that the public would retain ownership of the building. Others note that no new money would be coming into the public coffers, as it would if the building were sold to a private entity.
Still others complain the lack of transparency and the school board’s failure to involve the public in discussion about the potential sale violated the public trust. Many feel a proposal by Charles and John Shaw, whose purchase and renovation of the Smiley Building was widely lauded, should have been given more serious consideration. The Shaws planned to include deed-restricted, affordable housing units for teachers in their development. Many property owners in the neighborhood would much prefer to see a project similar to the Smiley Building than a fire station on the site in question.
Some are not persuaded that Fire Station 2 and the district’s offices must be located in the middle of downtown. A site on Highway 3 might actually offer equally good access.
Most important to consider, perhaps, is that the character of the neighborhood and downtown would be changed forever should this deal go through. While we sympathize with the fire district’s real estate problems, the 9-R sale is not the right solution for Durango.