MIDDLEBURY — It was originally presented as a real estate swap. Middlebury College would acquire the Lazarus building at 20 Main St. and convey it to the town for demolition for better access into the Marble Works Business District. In return, the town would cede a small property behind Ilsley Library (less than a third of an acre) to the college, which would add to its own 1-plus acre of land to create a 1.4-acre parcel that it would market for a future economic development project to strengthen the downtown.
But Middlebury selectboard members on Tuesday learned a quid pro quo would no longer be necessary.
The college has instead elected to donate not only the Lazarus building to the town, but also donate to the town the 78 percent of the 1.4 acres it owns behind the library. This would allow the town to use the parcel as it sees fit. The estimated market value of the approximately 1.4 acres, located behind the Ilsley Library near the Otter Creek riverfront, is $1 million. This does not include the value of the Lazarus building, which sits on 0.15 of an acre and is currently assessed by the town at $287,000.
College officials, led by President Ron Liebowitz, had been considering the land donation for the past several weeks as a means of furthering the town’s economic development and downtown planning efforts. On March 7, the Middlebury College Board of Trustees’ Prudential Committee authorized the land donation.
“The prospect of future development of this vital downtown riverfront property in Middlebury holds great promise for our community,” Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz said in announcing the move. “Following the recent vote to approve the construction of a new town hall, municipal gym and public park, I believe that putting this property in the hands of the town to determine the best use of this land through a process of conversation and collaboration, led by the selectboard, makes great sense.”
Middlebury residents on March 4 voted 915 to 798 in favor of a $6.5 million plan to erect a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation center off Creek Road. Middlebury College offered to underwrite $4.5 million of that construction debt in exchange for the current municipal building/gym site at 94 Main St. and another town-owned parcel at 2 Cross Street. Plans call for the 94 Main St. site to be razed and turned into a public park.
While approved on Town Meeting Day, the town office-recreation center project elicited some strong opposition from those not content with the 77 Main St. and Creek Road sites. One of those opponents, Howard “Skip” Brush, publicly confirmed on March 18 a petition drive to force a reconsideration vote on the March 4 referendum. Brush said on Monday he is optimistic he will gather the approximately 250 signatures he needs to file his petition by the April 3 deadline.
Meanwhile, Middlebury town officials are pleased with the college’s decision to donate the so-called Economic Development Initiative parcel, which for the past decade has been scoped for mixed-use development to provide another magnet for the downtown.
“This is an incredibly generous proposal from the college, and it provides the selectboard and the town of Middlebury with a unique opportunity to work together to determine how to use this property, which is located in the heart of our downtown,” said selectboard Chairman Dean George. “I would personally like to thank President Liebowitz for his vision in proposing this.”
Instead of the college selling the property to a developer for a plan the town would vet through its permitting process, the town now will carry sway over proposals from the get-go, George said.
“We’re appreciative to President Liebowitz and the college for their vision; now it’s time for us, as a community, to create our vision and make this into something really valuable,” said Selectman Nick Artim.
“It has a lot of potential,” Selectwoman Laura Asermily said of the parcel.
The selectboard will next decide how to proceed with soliciting input on how the property should be used and developed. It is currently the site of a municipal parking lot serving the library and downtown businesses. Its location near the Otter Creek and Main Street should make it a coveted spot for someone with the right finances and business plan.
“From my perspective, this is a fantastic opportunity for our community,” said Jamie Gaucher, director of Middlebury’s new Office of Business Development & Innovation. “The level of cooperation, the degree of dialogue and the creative process around our public/private partnerships in Middlebury are remarkable. The dynamic leadership here was attractive to me when my family and I were considering moving to Middlebury last year and I think it continues to be one of our community’s greatest assets.”
While the selectboard has yet to delineate the planning process going forward for the property, Gaucher said he expects “we will start with a blank slate and consider any and all alternatives around how we bring additional value to downtown Middlebury.”
Officials have yet to announce a demolition date for the Lazarus building. Once cleared, the Lazarus site will allow for the widening of the adjacent Printer’s Alley link from Main Street to the Marble Works complex.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.