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Clippings: Dreaming of The Hub in Middlebury

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Posted on June 4, 2014 |
By John S. McCright



I have a vision, it appears as if from a black and white film from the 1920s or ’30s. I see a solid but attractive brick building, three or four stories tall with a peaked roof. It is sitting next to a river in the dusky twilight of a winter’s late afternoon. A footbridge reaches out and up over the river and back down to the raised platform alongside the railroad tracks on the opposite bank.

People bundled up in heavy overcoats trundle across the bridge, its seven-foot, wrought-iron railings keeping them from sliding off into the ice-choked water below. Half of them hurry to make the train and the other half, moving in the opposite direction, hurry to the depot, where they will meet a friend or have a meal or make arrangements with the smiling concierge for a room in a local hotel and a ride to the inn. Some will pick up their car, which they had parked in the garage on the second, third and fourth stories of the train station, which turns out to be mostly parking garage with a cleverly designed façade.

The people in the town worried if the garage would be big enough when they were planning it, but now they saw that it was just fine. With the rising cost of fuel, more people were taking the local bus (which stopped right outside the depot), and the second parking garage across Main Street accommodated any excess demand around the holidays. Some people didn’t mind leaving their automobile at the other garage because when they got off the train they could ride to it in the horse-drawn carriage offered as an amenity by the local merchants.

And the train station was plenty busy. The outrageous price for gasoline coupled with the improved train service to and from the big cities meant that more people were riding the rails than there had been in generations. Downtown Burlington was only 59 minutes away, Rutland slightly less, Montreal and New York City within a quarter of a day’s travel. And the cities that were the destination for some of the locals, were also home to many more people who took the train to the Vermont town to enjoy a bit of rest in the country in a destination that offered the good restaurants, B&Bs and entertainment that they were looking for. In fact, the success of the smartly appointed train station had encouraged some locals to improve the shops and eateries in the downtown, and some to build a few new ones. Still others who came from the big cities liked it so much that they decided to stay and operate their businesses right here in the little Vermont town, where they employed a few people, and then a few more.

Of course the town I’m envisioning is Middlebury, the river is the Otter Creek, the spot where the beautiful train station/parking garage is built is in the so-called EDI site behind Ilsley Library.

(As an aside, I hate calling it the EDI site; it does stand for something — Economic Development Initiative — but it is such jargon. I’m sure plenty of newcomers to the discussion don’t even know that until they eventually have to timidly ask why it’s called Edie Eye. Let’s just call it The Hub, since that’s what it’s supposed to be — the focus of activity. If you don’t want to give it the primacy of a Hub, then we can call it The Spot by the Creek.)

Here’s how I came to this vision. Several years ago I read a novel whose beginning is set in Middlebury in the 1930s; it may have been a memoir, but I think the author was shy about naming real individuals she portrayed in the book so she called it a novel. There was a passage in the book recounting how a little girl went from her home on South Street down to the train station. This passage was so vivid that it stuck with me. I liked the image, but I knew that the railroad would never have the economic vitality it did 80 years ago as long as the infrastructure was not improved.

Then came actual movement on lowering the railroad track through downtown and a plausible goal of bringing higher-speed trains to Middlebury. By the end of next year the first stages of that project should be done. But the old train station has already been converted to other uses, and it is a bit of a hike for pedestrians. I wondered where one could site a train station that was close to the tracks and in the heart of downtown.

In the triangle next to St. Stephen’s on the Green is one place, but the parking would be REALLY bad, and the plans for the tunnel there are already pretty set in stone, so to speak. The Marble Works is another possibility. But something about the traffic flow (even once you take down the little Lazarus building on Printer’s Alley) bugged me, and the existing buildings aren’t unattractive.

Heading in the opposite direction is the stretch of tracks that emerges from under Merchants Row and continues for a couple hundred yards before passing under the Cross Street Bridge. It is kind of a no-man’s land where a little development wouldn’t displace anything. The only problem is that there isn’t a lot of land between the creek and the steep hillside. There is enough room for a platform upon which travelers would stand, but not much else. Putting the station on top of the hill on South Pleasant Street would mean tearing down a building or two and require those getting off the train in Middlebury to carry their heavy bags up a steep hill first thing — not the best way for a little town to make a good first impression.

Then the talk of the EDI site, er, The Hub, heated up. And when Middlebury College officials said they would turn over their rights to part of the site, my vision for The Spot by the Creek began to take form. Creating a place designed for people to come and go seems like an obvious mandate for economic development — grow human traffic in a spot where there are already some places for them to spend their money. Making additional parking part of the structure was also a prerequisite, since pretty much everyone wants more parking downtown and the comings and goings of a train station would create the need for more. That’s when I also added to my vision a second multi-story garage; it would be in the existing municipal lot off Frog Hollow. By making it a couple stories high you could not only create more spaces, but you could connect the top floor to Main Street via a pedestrian walkway near the bakery or the Sheldon Museum.

The really wild thing, of course, would be the pedestrian bridge from the new train station over the creek to the platforms. I’ll admit it is maybe a little out there. But if we pull it off, it would be a spectacular and memorable way to enter Middlebury. Tourists and Middlebury College parents visiting for a weekend in the fall would go home talking about that unusual and actually pretty interesting river crossing they did in Middlebury.

Is it a dream? Well, sure it is. It’s a dream. But where are we going to take ourselves if we don’t have dreams?

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