Panel backs Creek Road location for new recreation center

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Town Office & Recreation Steering Committee on Tuesday morning voted 7-1, with two abstentions, to recommend to the local selectboard that a new, 11,500-square-foot recreation center be built on a 2.4-acre parcel off Creek Road owned by the UD-3 school district.
The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday evening voted 4-3 to support the committee’s recommendation, after a long and at times acrimonious debate about the site selection process (see related story here).
The steering committee and selectboard votes officially take out of play the other contending site, on recreation park property off Mary Hogan Drive.
Steering committee members spent almost an hour Tuesday morning discussing the pros and cons of both sites while reviewing the latest plans presented by Bread Loaf project architect Chris Huston. Ultimately, a majority of the panel believed the Creek Road site would afford more flexibility for parking and possible expansion, could accommodate four locker rooms and storage space that would be built at UD-3 taxpayers’ expense, and pose fewer parking and traffic circulation hurdles than the Mary Hogan Drive site.
The new recreation center is intended to replace the municipal gym at the intersection of College and South Main streets. A proposed project calls for the gym and the adjacent town office building to be razed, with the property (and a building lot on Cross Street) conveyed to Middlebury College in exchange for a total of $5.5 million. That money is to be applied toward construction of a new, 9,400-square-foot municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation center off Creek Road, as well as the costs of demolishing the current town offices and gym and moving Middlebury College’s Osborne House from 77 Main St. to the lot on Cross Street. Town officials want to limit taxpayers’ total liability for the projects to $2 million.
Siting of the new buildings has proved controversial, with several residents urging that the town offices and gym be rebuilt or renovated on-site. Bread Loaf on Tuesday presented some updated cost estimates for undertaking such a project (see related story).
The UD-3 board on Wednesday evening, after the deadline for this edition of the Independent, was slated to discuss the Creek Road parcel’s emergence as the preferred recreation center site and how the district should proceed in its negotiations with the town. UD-3 board member Lucy Schumer was present at Tuesday’s steering committee meeting.
“The UD-3 board would want to work out a joint use agreement,” Schumer said.
Among other things, the UD-3 board must decide how to convey use of the parcel, whether it be through a long-term lease or other instrument. A vote by Addison Central Supervisory Union residents will be needed, and perhaps even an Australian ballot vote if any money is to change hands, Schumer noted.
Also up for discussion will be the UD-3 board’s desire to have four locker rooms with showers and restrooms, along with some storage area, included in the recreation center project. Bread Loaf has given a preliminary estimate that such an add-on is likely to cost $450,000 to $500,000. These costs would be voted on and (if passed) paid by taxpayers in the seven ACSU-member towns.
Some steering committee members said it would make financial sense to install the locker rooms at the same time the recreation center is being built, rather than after the fact. But it remains unclear when the UD-3 board would request that such a project be built within the new recreation center.
Supporters said the locker rooms could serve student athletes who use the surrounding Middlebury College-owned fields. Those athletes currently change in cars or in nearby wooded areas. The recreation center would also provide shelter during storms and restrooms, according to UD-3 officials. The current building on the Creek Road site — the former Middlebury American Legion hall — is so dilapidated that the school district will not even use it for storage. The building will have to be demolished and removed to make way for a new recreation center.
A list compiled by the Middlebury Parks & Recreation Department shows the playing fields off Creek Road are used by area students in grades 3 through 12, for such sports as soccer, lacrosse, softball and baseball. The fields occasionally host regional tournaments.
Steering committee members said several issues will have to be resolved if the recreation center is to be a good fit for the Creek Road parcel, including:
•  Ensuring the building is landscaped and designed in a way that is as unobtrusive as possible to area neighbors. There are some single-family homes in the vicinity, as well as the Addison County Transit Resources headquarters, office buildings, a bank and an apartment complex.
•  Commissioning a traffic study to determine how traffic associated with the new facility might affect the intersection of Creek Road and Route 7 South. That intersection is not signaled.
•  Making sure the structure, in committee member John Barstow’s words, does not “look like a building in a sea of parking.” The site is currently endowed with a gravel parking lot that has a capacity for 124 spaces. Committee member David Donahue stressed, however, that there are 124 spaces only if people park correctly, which is hard to do without marked lines.
•  Finding a new home for Addison Central Teens (ACT). The Middlebury teen center is currently located in the lower level of the municipal building and was tentatively slated to be relocated to the warming hut in the recreation park. But now that the Mary Hogan Drive site is no longer in contention, a new teen center space will have to be pinned down.
“Moving (to the Creek Road site) presents a bigger problem for the teen center than the Mary Hogan site,” said Barstow, also a member of the ACT board.
Selectman Nick Artim, also a member of the steering committee, said the community will not forget local teens.
“We will not leave you out in the street,” Artim told Barstow.
Some committee members also lamented the fact that Creek Road is further away from the core village area than the Mary Hogan site and is therefore less accessible by foot. The Mary Hogan site, some argued, would have allowed for a better consolidation of the town’s recreation facilities. The recreation park is already home to the Memorial Sports Center, tennis courts and playground facilities.
“It’s beginning to feel like we are building a new gym for the high school,” resident Victoria DeWind said of siting the recreation center at the Creek Road site.
Ruth Hardy, a steering committee member and chairwoman of the ID-4 school board, cast the opposing vote on the Creek Road parcel. She reiterated her concerns about a planning process she believes has been rushed and devoid of a long-term view.
“I find myself concerned about this timeline and proposing a major change like this so close to the time (of a Town Meeting Day) vote,” Hardy said. She added she believes the UD-3 locker rooms project should be decided by voters at the same time as the recreation center to give voters a complete picture of the total expense.
And that total expense, Hardy said, would come at a time when school boards are already struggling to prepare tight budgets for the 2014-2015 academic year.
“I have major concerns about a project of this magnitude on our school budgets,” she said. “Our school budgets, as all of us in this room know, are under close scrutiny by the state and local residents, and I think a project like this adding to our school budgets — it’s just not the right time to do that.”
Barstow, like Hardy, expressed some misgivings about the timeline.
“I know people get impatient, but these are huge decisions,” he said, adding he hoped the committee was not rallying behind the Creek Road site simply because the Mary Hogan site appeared more problematic. The committee on Tuesday reviewed a recent traffic study focusing on the Mary Hogan school grounds. That study, prepared by the consulting firm RSG, includes an estimate that the new recreation center could generate 86 new vehicle trips (71 entering, 15 exiting) via the Mary Hogan driveways during the 3 p.m. hour — already one of the busiest traffic periods on campus. The number of trips is based on current use of the municipal gym.
RSG proposed some potential remedies to the traffic and circulation problems at the school, including a one-way north-to-south traffic circulation flow; relegating the school’s southern driveway to an exit only; relocating the stop bar on the southern driveway to be closer to Court Street and to allow for right turns on red; expanding the paved area for additional pick-up/drop-off capacity; and creating a formal pedestrian connection from Court Street to the school.
An ad hoc ID-4 committee reviewed the RSG suggestions on Dec. 16 and determined that the study, “while an appreciated first step, did not adequately address the potential impact of the construction of a new facility on the ID-4 site and that additional data, information and options would need to be evaluated.”
Town officials had recommended a “Phase II” project, estimated at $350,000 to $450,000 for repaving and reconfiguration of the parking and circulation schemes in the Mary Hogan lot as well as adding dedicated parking for a recreation center if built off Mary Hogan Drive.
The Middlebury Town Office & Recreation Steering Committee will next meet on Tuesday, Jan. 7, at 10:30 a.m. in the municipal building.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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