Rotary centerpiece still hot topic

MIDDLEBURY — A small offshoot of the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project continued on Tuesday to take up a large part of Middlebury selectmen’s time — the question what to place in the 22-foot circle in the middle of the new roundabout that workers began to build this week at the bridge’s downtown end.
In late June, a committee appointed by selectmen recommended a prominent public work of art that should be 20 to 25 feet tall, lighted at night, and designed to be appreciated from a safe distance.
The committee and selectmen discussed back then, and selectmen talked again on Tuesday, about an artists’ competition for the right to complete the work, which would be funded by donations and grants, not taxpayers.
Selectmen have had phone calls both pro and con — Selectman Nick Artim said his count approached two dozen — and newspaper letter writers have backed that idea, hated the idea, or suggested trees or plantings instead.
Several local residents came to Tuesday’s meeting to offer their two cents worth — and they outnumbered all other attendees interested in every other agenda item.
Selectman Victor Nuovo, also a member of the Centerpiece Roundabout Committee, offered both panels’ points of view in supporting public art in the middle of the 122-foot-wide roundabout.
“We would hope we would do something tasteful, not extravagant, that in later years people would look back on and say, ‘They did the right thing,’” Nuovo said.
Selectboard chairman John Tenny repeatedly emphasized selectmen would make a final decision only after extensive efforts to get public input.
“I remain convinced this is a wonderful opportunity for the town,” Tenny said. “Together, we can look at the possibilities … I hope we can find a solution that we can all, or most of us, can embrace.”
The committee recommended that the centerpiece:
• Be “historic or contemporary in its form, and aesthetic.”
• Celebrate the 250th anniversary of Middlebury’s town charter, due in 2011. At Tuesday’s meeting, Nuovo said, “It’s been (250 years of) peaceful, ordered governance, as you can see is going on here tonight.”
• Be made with material that is “permanent and durable. It may include stone/marble, concrete, steel, metal sheathing, fiberglass and glazing.”
• Be designed “so that it may be viewed with greatest advantage from sidewalks surrounding the roundabout. Any inscriptions should be readable from there also. (The centerpiece) should not have features that invite pedestrians to cross over to view it. Its beauty should be most evident when it is seen at a distance.”
• Not be a fountain, which could not function year-round.
Tenny said the centerpiece, artistic or not, would be practical.
“There’s a functional, physical aspect of a centerpiece in the roundabout,” Tenny said. “A centerpiece is intended to guide the motorist … and prevent a vehicle from going straight through it.”
Still, not all were convinced.
New Haven’s Dennis Sparling cautioned that the history of public art is littered with unsatisfactory projects, some continued to suggest plantings, and Middlebury’s Barbara Tomb said she was concerned that the momentum of the process would lead officials to say “yes” to a proposal even if no good one was produced.
“I would like to make sure the process has the option of ‘No, thank you,’” Tomb said.
Nuovo and Tenny said the selectboard would not approve an unattractive option.
“If we can’t find one, then we don’t do it,” Nuovo said.
Middlebury’s Ralph Esposito said a centerpiece amid a sea of directional signs could distract drivers, adding a safety hazard, and that until the roundabout was in place it was too early to consider what was appropriate to put there.
“I think we’re very premature,” Esposito said. “I don’t think there are even 10 people in this town who can visualize what that roundabout will look like.”
Tenny reemphasized a centerpiece would be a safety feature by alerting drivers they should slow down while approaching the roundabout.
“We need to do something there to meet that need,” Tenny said.
And selectmen said it would be many months before artists could respond to requests, the public process could play out, and any decision could be made.
“I think you’re supposing we’re going to rush through this. We’re not,” Nuovo told Esposito.
Artim said his callers were evenly split between those favoring public art and those questioning the idea. He said he guessed most residents’ opinions aligned with his, somewhere between the two poles.
That said, Artim agreed with the rest of the selectboard that the centerpiece committee, which will next meet in early September, should move forward.
“Let’s see what the ideas are … It could become a very interesting opportunity,” he said. “I see nothing that says we should stop the process.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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