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River land in city eyed for development

VERGENNES — The owner of a Vergennes riverfront parcel just southwest of the Otter Creek bridge now envisions two buildings on it, including a restaurant with a deck overlooking the water.
Hinesburg architect Leonard Duffy also believes there is demand for a bank with a drive-up window on the vacant 1.1 acres he has owned since 1980.
Duffy’s riverfront land lies just across West Main Street from the Shade Roller Building. It has a gravel parking lot and has most recently been used as a staging area for Green Mountain Power’s major dam reconstruction project.
Ideally, Duffy, 71, would like to see what he calls “The Portage Project” get under way in 2012. But although he said he has had promising early discussions with possible restaurant and bank tenants, Duffy said he does not yet have the necessary commitments.
 “(I will move forward) when I get some tenants firmed up, not until then, and I don’t know how long that’s going to take,” he said. “I can’t predict. I would like to get under construction this year, but at this point I don’t think that’s probably hopeful.”
Duffy said he does have leads.
“I’ve talked to a few potential tenants. I have more to talk to,” he said.
Duffy — who was the original architect in Vergennes on what is now the Shaw’s Supermarket and Kinney Drug plaza, and on the downtown Stephens House when WIZN-FM moved in — met on April 2 with the Vergennes Development Review Board for a review of his preliminary sketch plans, a meeting he said that went well.
Minutes show no action was taken because of the preliminary nature of the proposal. Questions focused on the need for a traffic study and on the advisability of a historic site marker that Duffy proposed and which officials were concerned could add to traffic.
Duffy is proposing a two-story building along the creek with about a 4,000-square-foot footprint. It would house a 100-plus-seat restaurant with a bar and outdoor seating. Its second story could serve as function space for the restaurant or retail or office space, according to a promotional email.
The second building, according to the email, would be a one-story structure of between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet. Again, secondary office or retail space could be possible, depending on the space needs of the primary tenants.
“They (retail and office uses) are logical extensions,” Duffy said. “It all depends on how big the primary uses are.”
The lot has room for 68 parking places even with the two buildings put in place, according to his sketch plan. Plans also include a “water garden” to purify run-off from the site before it hits the river.
Duffy said the lot is not much to look at now because of an overgrowth of vegetation along the riverbank and some trash dumping there, and because of the open gravel lot. But he believes the riverfront has untapped potential.
“It’s pretty ugly right now,” Duffy said. “It’s not easy to get through the tangle, but the view up the river is quite nice.”
He has not conducted formal marketing studies, but he said his own research and his 40 years of working on projects as an architect have led him to believe demand exists for what he is proposing. He also cited the proximity of Goodrich Corp. and other Panton Road businesses as a plus.
“I’m just saying they make sense here,” Duffy said. “I’ve talked to people in the restaurant business … and I’ve talked to people in the city of Vergennes who think their bank should have another drive-up window.”
The site works well for two buildings, he said, the water level is controlled by GMP’s nearby dam, and the riverfront is well suited for an eatery.
“The site has some particular attributes,” he said. “Having a waterfront restaurant is a great thing anywhere, and there are relatively few in Vermont.”
The site has been home to a companion of the Shade Roller building, which he said burned in the 1960s, and its foundation still exists beneath the overgrown vegetation. According to his email, the site “was continuously occupied by industrial uses since the Revolutionary War until a portion of the former Vermont Shade Roller factory burned a generation ago.”
Duffy and former partners bought the land intending to put a motel on the site, and obtained local and state permits to do so in 1980. He said his partners decided not to go through with the project, and he has owned the parcel since.
He also hopes the remainder of the Shade Roller factory on the other side of West Main Street can be restored to productive use soon by owner David Shlansky.
“I feel it would help the neighborhood,” Duffy said. “I think they have a lot of potential in those buildings.”
 Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.            

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