Guest editorial: Town-gown plan lauded, but needs public’s participation

I’m excited about the “Plan forged for new Middlebury offices” described in the June 13 edition of the Addison Independent. I’ve devoted my professional career to encouraging and assisting communities all around the country to proactively steer their futures. There are far too many examples of communities losing their character and their economic vibrancy to incremental, uncoordinated growth driven by short-term economic opportunity and huge corporate domination.
How many times have we all driven through towns that feel like “Anywhere USA?” If you stop and talk to long-time residents in these “chain towns” many will tell you the age-old story of how their town changed dramatically from one sporting locally-owned stores and high civic engagement to one dominated by strip malls and cars and suffering from fractured social structures.  They will share how these changes began slowly, almost imperceptibly, but once they took hold the momentum bulldozed over the town.
Here we thankfully have elected officials, an economically powerful Middlebury College led by a president who cares about the host community, and a corps of volunteers who work tirelessly to help Middlebury grow in a way that will reinforce and enhance its economic, physical and social character. I understand why this deal was initially hatched and pursued behind closed doors and with the railroad bridges’ replacements and a perennially short construction season, time may be short to consummate this deal. I still urge the Middlebury Selectboard and the College to invite the public into final design and consideration.
One of the most important pieces in this creative puzzle is the large area behind the Ilsley library, currently hosting a sea of parking. Under the terms of the agreement, the College will end up owning this parcel and will be free to sell it.
I believe many will agree that this parcel will play a pivotal role in the economic future of our downtown. It is the last big parcel available downtown, is now even more visible with the construction of the second bridge and really anchors this end of Middlebury. When you look at the development history of Middlebury you’ll realize this is a once-in-a-100-year opportunity and if this parcel is developed badly it will significantly and negatively impact Middlebury and the region it serves.
I’m not sure many in the Middlebury area realize that this parcel was intensely planned a few years ago using a visualization software tool developed by the Orton Family Foundation called CommunityViz™. Several Middlebury College interns, College Professor Jeff Howarth, Middlebury’s planner Fred Dunnington, an Orton consultant and a Town-appointed committee spent an entire summer and over $40,000 to develop three scenarios looking at how this parcel could be developed.
The differences in the three proposals in look and feel, connectivity to Main Street, mixes of commercial and residential uses, and general economic opportunity and impact were dramatic. The visualizations are still available at the Town offices and should be utilized as we enter this critical phase.
These scenarios position the Town and College to consider what kind of parameters could be set on how this parcel is developed. The scenarios revealed that Middlebury’s zoning was not specific enough for this parcel and current work on revising the zoning may take too much time. Furthermore, we shouldn’t just trust that the parcel will be developed with the Town’s best interests in mind. This would place us squarely back in the age-old story I related at the beginning of this article.
Instead, the town should continue its proactive, long-term thinking by articulating clear, baseline requirements for how this unique parcel should be developed thereby ensuring it fulfills the economic, physical and social opportunities it presents. This approach has been used effectively in many places around the country with Burlington’s waterfront the closest example. We can’t let the apparent crush of time overly influence the final shape of such an exciting and important proposal.
Bill Roper is a former executive director of the Orton Foundation, an attorney specializing in community development and long-time Weybridge resident.

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