Middlebury eyes two-deck structure for more parking

MIDDLEBURY — An organization representing downtown Middlebury property owners is requesting that the town import and install a temporary parking structure to make up for the long-term loss of approximately 50 spaces during replacement of the railroad overpasses on Merchants Row and Main Street.
Replacement of the overpasses is slated to begin next spring and span two construction seasons. The $18 million project, funded primarily with federal and state money, calls for a concrete tunnel to replace the overpasses and in turn create some extra surface area in the downtown by filling in the now-vacant space between Triangle Park and the town green. The Lazarus building at 20 Main St. will be razed before the start of the overpasses project.
The impending construction work will force some detours and temporarily eat up precious downtown parking spaces used by shoppers and diners. This has raised concerns among local merchants and members of the Downtown Improvement District Commission (DIDC), an organization representing the owners of non-residential property in the core Middlebury Village area. These property owners pay an extra annual tax for improvements to public property within the district.
“We firmly believe that parking lost during this project must be replaced with a like number of parking spaces in a location as close and convenient as possible to downtown retailers, restaurants and other service providers,” reads a Nov. 5 letter from DIDC Chairman G. Kenneth Perine to Bill Finger, local manager of the overpasses project.
“The commissioners strongly support a plan to provide up to 50 spaces via a temporary parking structure,” the letter continues. “The lease or purchase cost of providing a temporary parking structure, while not trivial, represents a small percentage of a very large and costly project. It will help maintain the economic vitality of Middlebury’s downtown and avoid long-term negative economic impacts that can be anticipated with the construction project.”
Perine is also president and CEO of the National Bank of Middlebury, the main branch of which is located on Main Street, close to one of the overpasses to be replaced.
Finger acknowledged concerns about the loss of downtown parking and has begun to check out companies specializing in temporary parking structures. He specifically named a Canadian firm called CANAM. The company has designed and installed modular portable parking structures in several Canadian municipalities. The closest to Vermont was in St. Lambert, Quebec, which is a southern suburb of Montreal. There, the company put in place several of these structures to replace parking lost to a major downtown construction project.
Based on current research, the company can provide temporary parking structures that:
•  Can accommodate  46 cars or 37 cars. These modules can be slapped together to provide larger parking capacity.
•  Can be erected over existing parking lots. The structures are equipped with a ramp and stairs. The parking deck is limited to passenger vehicles weighing up to 8,000 pounds. Clearance on the ground level is 8 feet.
•  Would be shipped (or moved by train) in six to 12 units, weighing 20,500 pounds each.
Local officials are estimating it would cost around $350,000 to have such a parking structure in place in Middlebury for 730 days (two years). This cost reflects an annual rental fee of approximately $3,800 per space for 46 vehicles. This translates into a cost of around $478 per day for the 730 days.
Proponents are lobbying for such a cost to be included within the scope of the overpasses project, which would clearly require negotiations with the Federal Highway Administration.
“It’s purely conceptual at this point,” Finger said. “We don’t have very many details, at this point.”
One of the remaining things to sort out is where such a facility could be placed in downtown Middlebury, where most of the space is already built upon. It would require a fairly expansive, flat spot. Some are suggesting a temporary parking structure could be erected above the municipal lot behind the Ilsley Library. That’s a location that is currently being tabbed for an as-yet undefined economic development project.
The downtown business community is anxiously awaiting the town’s response to the looming loss of parking.
“It’s clear that the railroad bridge construction is going to be disruptive to the downtown and we need to proactively come up with a parking solution that works,” said Ben Wilson, president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, which represents the interests of downtown merchants.
“I am glad (town officials) are working on the front end of this.”
Nancie Dunn owns the Sweet Cecily shop at 42 Main St. She is pleased to see the town look into a temporary parking structure, but cautioned that it needs to be placed within the downtown area if it is to be effective. She does not think out-of-town shoppers would relish the prospect of parking off site and waiting for shuttle bus service into the village.
Dunn is concerned that the loss of parking, coupled with construction disruption, could keep many shoppers away and result in some downtown businesses going under. She explained many of the small, independently owned shops on Main Street are profitable around six months out of the year and have little capacity to absorb major losses.
“A lot of these businesses operate year to year,” Dunn said.
But she believes downtown Middlebury will be able to weather the construction storm by creatively working with the railroad overpasses contractor. Dunn said there could be opportunities for artists and/or children to paint images on plywood that might be set up to shield portions of the project area. And she noted that young students in particular love to watch large construction vehicles, so the Middlebury work could provide some teaching moments.
“We could market it in a way that makes it a creative project,” Dunn said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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