By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Development Review Board (DRB) next week will draft a final list of requirements the developers of a proposed Staples will have to fulfill if they hope to get the green light to build the 14,600-square-foot office supplies store in The Centre shopping plaza off Route 7 South.
Those requirements, according to DRB Chairman John Barstow, may include a “master plan” depicting The Centre and its relationship with, and impact on, neighboring properties; an agreement between the developer (Middlebury Associates, aka Myron Hunt Inc.) and adjacent property owners on links between their respective parking lots to improve traffic flow in and out of The Centre; and landscaping, traffic island and crosswalk upgrades to improve pedestrian safety in The Centre.
Members of the DRB, during a three-hour hearing on the project on Monday, also asked Chris Hunt of Middlebury Associates to request that Staples slightly alter the location of the proposed store. Instead of having it built directly next to Hannaford Supermarket, some DRB members would prefer to see the store moved slightly south within The Centre, on land that is currently used for parking. DRB officials argued the lost parking spaces could be replaced on the spot currently being eyed for the store. They also argued that modifying the design of the store and bringing it slightly forward would give The Centre buildings a horseshoe-type configuration with a courtyard-style parking area that would be more visually pleasing and potentially safer for pedestrians.
Barstow cited the Courtyard by Marriott hotel, located across the street from The Centre, as an example of a company that ultimately agreed to forego prototype franchise architecture to meet the town regulations on architectural aesthetics.
“Nothing is impossible,” he said.
Hunt said he would ask Staples officials if they would consider modifying and relocating the store as the DRB suggested, but he was not optimistic the company would agree to it.
“I’m willing to bet a lot more than a nickel that the answer will be ‘no,’” Hunt — whose company owns The Centre — told the DRB and around 25 citizens who listened and spoke at the hearing.
The proposed Staples store has generated a lot of controversy in town since the application was filed last year. Hundreds of people signed a petition opposing the store — as well as a now-defunct Starbucks plan for the same shopping center — because of its potential impact on traffic and on the economic vitality of local businesses in the downtown.
Monday’s hearing was the latest in a series of gatherings during which developers and the DRB have been determining whether the Staples plan can conform to Middlebury’s town plan and zoning ordinances.
Hunt and his development team — which include a professional landscaper, traffic consultant, lawyer and an engineer — presented evidence they argued should earn the Staples store a green light.
That evidence included:
• A commitment to put in new screening — including a berm to the south as well as new landscaping and vegetation to the south and southwest — to reduce the visual impact of the store to surrounding neighbors.
• A representation that “existing parking areas serve as adequate ‘open space’ under the zoning regulations, and concerns of aesthetics will be fully mitigated by the proposed murals, by extensive additional landscaping and screening, and by designing the proposed Staples store to continue the look and feel of the existing storefronts in The Centre.”
The murals in question would be painted on the exterior facades of The Centre walls facing the Middle Road entrance.
• A recommendation to increase the traffic signal timing sequence at intersections of The Centre and Route 7/Middle Road from the current 60 seconds to 80 seconds.
• A plan to improve pedestrian access/safety by extending the sidewalk along Route 7 to the southernmost point of The Centre property; and painting a striped walkway through the parking and loading area at the northwest corner of the property, leading to the walk-through area between TJ Maxx and Olympia Sports.
• A proposal to provide an indirect connection between The Centre property and the Middlebury Short Stop lot. The idea — which Hunt said he has not yet confirmed with affected property owners — calls for vehicle access from the Short Stop property to the former Middlebury Lanes bowling building to the north. Vehicles would then almost immediately turn left into The Centre property at a point behind the H&R Block business.
The DRB has been seeking a more direct connection between The Centre and neighboring parking lots as a means of reducing stress on the plaza’s main intersection with Route 7. Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington noted that three previous project approvals related to The Centre or adjacent properties have called for connections that have not, to date, materialized.
He pointed to a section in the Middlebury Town Plan that stipulates, “Prior to any changes in use, intensification or expansion of the Hannafords Plaza, or adjoining properties, parking lot connections required by prior approvals shall be completed. This is necessary to implement Rt. 7 corridor traffic engineering plans and mitigate traffic generation on Rt. 7/Court Street.”
Some DRB members and citizens at Monday’s hearing said they are concerned Middlebury Associates’ plans aren’t going far enough to meet the town plan needs.
“I will say you’ve addressed a lot of specifics in constructive ways … and I appreciate that,” DRB Chairman Barstow told Hunt and his team. “The bigger picture, where I feel there isn’t enough inducement out there — but there ought to be, given the way the world is now — is to try to think about this in more holistic, creative ways.”
Barstow and others argued the Staples application gives the town an opportunity to re-examine The Centre and the way it relates to the evolving neighborhood around it. The Centre was developed around 40 years ago; in the meantime, single-family homes, subdivisions and retirement communities have sprouted up in the vicinity.
“One of the things we view the application as is this opportunity to talk to you about ways to help bring a 1970s site… and try to address a changing neighborhood and economic environment, a lot of realities that are hitting home right now,” Barstow said.
For example, Barstow said the Staples plan did not include provisions for a bus stop at The Centre.
“We’ve gotten a lot of testimony recently regarding another application regarding the manifold increases in bus ridership; it’s just going to continue,” Barstow said. “I do not think current trends, in terms of oil, are going to change anytime soon, if ever, which is going to create fewer cars, if not smaller cars.”
Caroline Donnan, a resident of New Haven, urged Middlebury officials to press for the changes they want.
“I support this as an opportunity to, frankly, have some leverage,” she said. “We talked about how things don’t usually get done until there’s a ‘next application.’ Here, we have a ‘next application” in this area.”
Donnan said The Centre, as currently configured, is intimidating to drivers and pedestrians. Adding another business without making parking, access and pedestrian-related improvements would make a bad situation worse, she said.
“Pulling into that parking lot is one of the more intimidating experiences in Middlebury, because you have no clue where people are coming at you and from what direction,” Donnan added.
The Middlebury DRB will meet in deliberative session on Monday, June 14, to discuss the next steps in evaluating the Staples proposal. That will mean either sending Middlebury Associates an outright denial of its application, an approval with specific conditions, or a continuation of the hearing process.
If the project receives a conditional approval, it will still have to be reviewed by the Middlebury Design Advisory Committee and undergo Act 250 review.