Editorial: Powehouse decision should add polish to Riverfront Park

In the summer of 1997, Florida architect Alfred Browning Parker, who had a second home in Lincoln, proposed a futurist design for a restaurant that would sit atop of the old mill powerhouse at the edge of the Middlebury Falls on Otter Creek. A front-page sketch of Parker’s vision (published on June 27, 1997) resembled a three-story space needle-like structure with magnificent views of the falls and river.
It was undoubtedly not the right aesthetic for Middlebury, but the idea of improving the waterfront and creating use of the old powerhouse walls through private funding was an opportunity to pursue. Design can change, but finding someone with a bold vision to make use of a crumbling town landmark was an opportunity too good to waste, we argued.
Naysayers, however, so harshly ridiculed the design and concept of the architect that Parker later withdrew the proposal, and the property — which was originally built in 1811 as a cotton sheeting and yarn operation, and after a fire in 1891 served as a wheel house for two marble quarries from 1898 to 1931 — has since deteriorated to a bare shell of what it was 17 years ago when the restaurant was proposed.
The Middlebury Area Land Trust took over the property a few years back, thinking it could at least stabilize the structure and help revitalize the idea of a riverfront park. But it also failed to make any progress on the property despite several initiatives. More recently, the property — now completely in shambles — was given to the town of Middlebury because it presented a safety hazard and town liability.
The selectboard rightly named a committee to review options of what to do with the historic site and how to manage the liability. Solutions, not surprisingly, are not cheap. A story on Page 2 goes through eight options proposed by Knight Consulting Engineers Inc. with varying price tags for each task undertaken — from $10,000 to dig up the weeds and clean it up a bit, to $500,000 for reconstructing the walls. If all the recommendations were approved, the project could cost just shy of a million bucks. Adding to the uncertainty of the project, committee members are looking into possible soil contamination from past deposits and exploring whether they need a “brownfields assessment” before other steps are taken.
Three thoughts leap to the fore:
• What a shame the public’s reaction to Parker’s design for a restaurant was met with such virulence that rather than revising his ideas and working with town officials to create a design people might embrace, he chose to take his time, energy, money and vision elsewhere. Perhaps nothing would have come of further discussions, but it was a possibility cut short.
• If left untended, time destroys historic sites. The consequence, if the historic structure is to be preserved, is increased spending by taxpayers.
• No matter what action the town takes on the matter, it should be done in the larger context of making improvements to Middlebury’s Riverfront Park. The park has made significant strides in recent years, but still falls short of what it could be. Notably, Parker’s proposal was prompted by the creation of a Middlebury Riverfront Master Plan completed in 1994. Of the recommendations proposed at that time was a boardwalk along the edge of the river from the falls to the footbridge, cleaning up the area behind the National Bank of Middlebury and encouraging businesses in that block to develop rear entrances facing west to the Otter Creek — ideas still being contemplated today.
The time is right to revisit those ideas and move forward. As the old Lazarus building is razed in preparation of improving the railroad underpass on Main Street next year (and open up the entrance to the Marble Works and the Riverfront Park), now is the most cost-effective time to pursue the 20-year effort to spruce up the area around the powerhouse and the couple hundred feet of riverfront between the falls and the footbridge. The revived Riverfront Committee made great progress in recent years, but the area remains a diamond in the rough. With a little more polish, and with an historic site in its midst, it could shine as the town’s crowning jewel.
Angelo S. Lynn

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