Key downtown lot eyed for building

MIDDLEBURY — Local residents on Jan. 27 will be offered a glimpse of some building options for one of the largest developable spaces remaining in downtown Middlebury.
The 1.5 acres of usable land in question consists of two side-by-side lots, one owned by Middlebury College and one by the town of Middlebury. The land is located behind the Ilsley Public Library, near Otter Creek and the new Cross Street Bridge.
The college and the town have agreed in principle to merge the lots, and a citizens’ committee has spent the past few years assessing the property as the potential site for a mixed-use project that would include parking.
Officials said the goal is to enhance the economic vitality of downtown Middlebury, boost the town’s grand list and attract more shoppers and businesses to the community.
With the aid of consultants, the Middlebury-based Orton Family Foundation, and a student intern, the panel shepherding the so-called “Economic Development Initiative (EDI)” is now ready with a public presentation showing what could be built at the site. Building would occur during a multi-year timeline that would include public input and recruitment of a private developer whose proposal would have to pass the town’s development review process.
“We are not the developers,” said G. Kenneth Perine, chairman of the EDI committee and president of the National Bank of Middlebury. “The point of doing this public process is to make sure that the things we have come to realize through our work match with the public.”
The committee presentation, at 7 p.m. next Thursday in the Ilsley Library conference room, will include conceptual drawings of how a multi-floor building — featuring retail, commercial, office and even residential uses — could be massed on the 1.5-acre site in a scale roughly compatible with surrounding structures.
Officials have prepared photo simulations to show views of a potential new building from the Otter Creek riverfront, Main Street and other angles. Additional diagrams show underground parking schemes to replace current spots that now lie within the building footprint.
Perine and his colleagues — including Middlebury College Director of Business Services Tom Corbin — will also discuss the process they are recommending to bring the project to fruition. That process includes:
• Plenty of public input.
• Creation of a “real estate holding company” to consolidate control over the town-gown property. Corbin explained such a holding company — featuring college and town representation — would provide a convenient, single entity with which a prospective developer could negotiate for the property. The single entity could more nimbly deal with development proposals than the college and town could in acting as separate entities, Corbin noted.
Perine said townspeople will have to vote on whether to establish the real estate holding company.
• Selection of a project developer, who would then have to take plans through Middlebury’s development review process. That process would allow the public to weigh in on the project at the permitting level.
Corbin said it will be in the holding company’s best interest to pick a developer whose vision meshes with that of the community.
“You want to be sure that the person is viable and that the concept is viable,” Corbin said, noting the alternative would be a more lengthy permitting process that could culminate in a lot of wasted money and a permit denial.
The committee and town have already taken some steps to reduce permitting hurdles and potential unwanted surprises for a future developer. Phelps Engineering in 2007 conducted a stormwater analysis and soil test borings at the site. The property was also put through a geotechnical investigation, a Phase 1 environmental assessment, and an archaeological resources assessment.
All of those tests revealed “no unusual limitations to development,” according to Perine.
“These were all things that take a developer a long time, sometimes, in advance,” Perine said. “If they go into a property and there are unknowns there, they have to build that into their costs … We wanted to get this property as ready for development as we could, if there is somebody out there who wants to and has the means to do it.”
The town further enhanced the property’s development potential by relocating, during construction of the Cross Street Bridge, some water and sewer lines that flowed beneath the property.
“This has all been opened up now,” Perine said.
Committee members have set no firm timetable for the EDI, but Perine and Corbin said they hope to see a project built within the next five years. It is a project they believe could spur economic growth on other, smaller lots near the new Cross Street Bridge.
“We are hoping for a building that will stand the test of time and will be adaptable to what the downtown is like during the next 50 to 60 years,” Corbin said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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