Opinion: Development is not the best use for Middlebury plot

A year ago, there was lively discussion in Middlebury about the wisdom of turning over a piece of public real estate to Middlebury College in exchange for a contribution toward two new town buildings. Many in the community voiced concern about trading away a valuable public asset, the site of our present municipal building and gym.
Now, the town is proposing to sell off another piece of downtown real estate, the so-called “economic development initiative,” or EDI, parcel behind the Ilsley Library and the site of our new town office building. A portion of this land was already owned by the town, and last March the remaining, larger portion was transferred to the town by Middlebury College. So the future use of the entire 1.7 acres is now up to the town to decide.
The names we give to things matter, and our town leaders have shrewdly tried to determine the future use of this parcel by the way they have named it. By framing this as an “economic development initiative” our leaders would have us assume that the highest and best use of the parcel is some form of development that will add value to the grand list and generate tax dollars for the town budget.
I would suggest that turning this property over to a developer may not result in its highest and best use. Land in the center of Middlebury is scarce, and this parcel is uniquely located right behind two major public facilities. The parcel is currently used for parking. Indeed, in addition to the lower lot, it actually includes all of the parking spaces on the back side of the upper lot behind the Ilsley Library.
I’m very concerned that Middlebury not simply sell this parcel to the highest bidder, or to the developer proposing the largest addition to the grand list. In fact, I’m not convinced that we should be developing the parcel at all right now. It may well be that the best use of this parcel is its present use, as off-street parking for downtown businesses as well as the library and the new town offices.
Proponents of development have floated various ideas, including retail, office space, upscale housing, and a hotel. All these uses have one thing in common: a need for parking. They would increase the parking load downtown, and absorb some of the parking currently available to the public.
I really doubt that Middlebury needs more luxury housing or another hotel, and there doesn’t seem to be any great shortage of retail or office space either. What Middlebury clearly does need is the off street public parking currently available on this land. What we may need in the future is more space for the library and the town offices. Once this land is privately developed, those public uses will be permanently foreclosed.
I believe it is premature for Middlebury to be qualifying developers and putting out a Request for Proposals for this “EDI parcel.” And I suggest that we stop referring to the parcel in that way, because doing so tends to lead the process toward a predetermined outcome. Let’s call it something else: the “riverfront parcel” perhaps, or even “the parking lot behind the library.” And let’s have some serious public discussion about the highest and best use for this property.
David Andrews
Washington Street Extension

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