Middlebury to delay building project vote until town meeting

MIDDLEBURY — A steering committee charged with planning new town office and recreation buildings in Middlebury is recommending that the town postpone its vote on the projects from December to next March.
A majority of committee members suggested the voting postponement last week, submitting that an extra few months could allow the projects to be more clearly defined and conveyed to local voters for a Town Meeting Day referendum. Those projects involve construction of a new, 9,400-square-foot municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new, 11,400-square-foot recreation center at Middlebury’s recreation park off Mary Hogan Drive.
Project advocates had reported that delaying a vote until March might add around $350,000 to construction costs.
The two buildings would be built with a $6.5 million budget, $4.5 million of which would be gifted from Middlebury College in exchange for the current municipal building/gym site at the corner of South Main and College streets. The college would give the town an additional $1 million to clear the current site (which would be turned into a park) and to move the college’s Osborne House from 77 Main St. to a town-owned site off Cross Street.
It’s a project that continues to generate a lot of questions and debate, most recently at an Oct. 16 ID-4 school board meeting and at a public gathering on Oct. 17 at the municipal gym.
The ID-4 board meeting gave Mary Hogan Elementary School directors their first comprehensive look at the proposed recreation facility site plan. It’s a project that would require the ID-4 board’s blessing if it is to be sited in the recreation park. The ID-4 school district owns the property and currently leases it to the town.
The recreation facility would be located just west of the municipal tennis courts and would be visible from Court Street. It would feature its own entrance with circular drop-off area, according to plans developed by Bread Loaf Corp., which has been selected as the design-build firm for the project.
Plans show a complex dominated by a 7,000-square-foot multi-purpose gym surrounded by a lobby, storage room, restrooms, quiet studio, multi-purpose room (which would double as a senior center), and Middlebury Parks and Recreation department offices. The building would displace a basketball court and a toddler playground. The on-site warming hut would be repurposed as the new Addison Central Teens center.
Selectman Dean George and Bread Loaf officials told school directors at last Wednesday’s meeting that the current project budget is not ample enough to create dedicated parking for the facility, but that there should be adequate spots at the nearby Memorial Sports Center, Addison County Courthouse and Mary Hogan lots during off-peak hours. Organizers said on-site parking for the facility — as well as repaving and reconfiguration of the parking and circulation schemes in the Mary Hogan lot — would cost several hundred-thousand dollars and would have to be undertaken during a future “phase II” project. A proposed master plan for the site showed other potential future projects — such as a turf field, a skate park, a pavilion and expansion of the recreation center to the east.
But ID-4 board members on Wednesday were clearly concerned about the recreation center plans, particularly by the fact that the first phase of construction does not contemplate on-site parking and related improvements to the Mary Hogan lot.
“My initial reaction to this site plan is … it would be almost impossible for Mary Hogan to deal with the added (traffic) circulation,” board member Jennifer Bleich said, adding construction-related traffic could also exacerbate already challenging parking and circulation conditions in the school lot, particularly during peak morning and afternoon travel times.
“I can’t understand how the circulation improvements for parking and access aren’t part of the initial phase of this project.”
Bleich urged the selectboard to have a traffic consultant scrutinize the current parking and circulation assumptions.
Board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman echoed Bleich’s concerns. He questioned organizers’ assertion that an average of roughly 30 spaces in the Mary Hogan lot are empty at times when the recreation center is in use.
“Thirty spaces is your traffic management plan?” Duquette-Hoffman asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t find that convincing, and I don’t think that’s a very thoughtful approach to this plan.”
Duquette-Hoffman noted a March 2014 vote would call for construction to begin during the ensuing December — when classes are in session for the 2014-2015 academic year.
“There has to be some thinking and planning and funding applied for managing that (recreation center) entry and exit for this space going forward,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “It’s not about Mary Hogan alone; this is directly related to the rec. center. If the advice to you is the rec. center has no impact sufficient to require some sort of changes to that parking lot and entry, then I’m sorry, I think you need to find some other advice.”
Other board members questioned whether Mary Hogan Elementary students would have enough access to the new facility during and after school hours; whether the rec. center would have higher program fees; and how seniors and teens might react to their new accommodations. School officials expressed concern that seniors would have a shared, as opposed to dedicated, site for programming, and that the warming hut might be too small for the teen center.
George and Bread Loaf Corp. officials fielded board members’ questions and acknowledged many wrinkles in the plan will need to be ironed out during the months ahead. George said the steering committee will work to answer more of the ID-4 board’s questions in hopes of earning the board’s approval to build on the site.
“I’m assuming on Tuesday night, the selectboard will affirm the recommendation from the steering committee to move the bond vote date to town meeting, for a number of reasons,” George said. “But at the same time, I would hope that the school board would consider our request. If we continue on our planning process … to develop the plans, it is really important to find out where the school board stands on this project. If for some reason they chose not to permit the request to build the facility there, we need to consider what our next step would be as to where we might build that facility.”
Meanwhile, more than 40 residents showed up at a Thursday, Oct. 17, public meeting on the proposed recreation center and town office projects. Residents at that meeting got a chance to see the most recent plans and weigh in with comments.
Some of those comments, according to resident Victoria DeWind, keyed on potential parking challenges at the municipal building site; whether either building would be adequately sized to accommodate present and future programming; and whether the new town office would be large enough to accommodate town meeting and voting.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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