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Middlebury ‘pop-up’ park takes shape

MIDDLEBURY — The Lazarus building that borders Printer’s Alley on Middlebury’s Main Street was a no-man’s land for the final few years of its existence, as it had been vacated in anticipation of its removal, which occurred this past January.
Excavators left a roughly 2,500-square-foot flat surface that will soon serve as a staging point for reconstruction of the Main Street railroad overpass. In the meantime, the former Lazarus building site has become a beehive of activity. Students from Middlebury College and the University of Vermont have been busy transforming the concrete chasm into a temporary “pop-up” park that will include benches, information kiosks, some play structures for children and a small skateboard course.
May 1 saw the students hauling in lumber — much of it recycled — to fabricate the benches and kiosks. A skateboard quarter-pipe was already in place. The young folks — most of them studying in the fields of landscape architecture, urban design and environmental science — are toiling under the direction of  David Raphael, principal of Middlebury-based LandWorks, and John McLeod, visiting assistant professor of architecture at Middlebury College.
Once completed, the park will serve as a multi-generational gathering point for sitting, playing and learning about goings-on around town.
“It began with (Middlebury Town Manager) Kathleen Ramsay emailing me and saying, ‘Hey David, do you have any ideas about what to do on the Lazarus site with the building being taken down?’” Raphael said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do a pop-up park.’”
The term “pop-up park” implies a recreational amenity that materializes from nowhere and can be quickly dismantled when its time is up.
“This is not meant to be forever,” stressed Raphael, in his fifth year teaching the UVM course Sustainable Landscape Architecture and Construction. “It’s a park that may evolve over time and certainly over the next six weeks, it will certainly slowly and steadily emerge, piece by piece, as a place where a lot of different things can happen. We’re pretty excited about this.”
Ilsley Public Library officials will organize some meeting groups at the new park, according to Raphael.
A small skate park will offer a venue for local skateboarders who currently have few sanctioned places on which to practice their sport. Plans to establish a skate park near the Mary Hogan School have proved unsuccessful.
A climbing apparatus will be installed for kids. Wood chips will be placed beneath the structure to soften any falls.
Recycled barrels are being repurposed as planters for flowers to brighten up the area.
Four kiosks will provide sheltered seating with panels offering information about current events, as well as the history of the Lazarus site and the overpass project.
“We’re also going to have a blackboard area where people can leave comments and notes,” Raphael said. “We’ll ask people to share their thoughts about downtown, or ideas for the future.”
Some stadium-style seating will be installed in an intermediate level of the space, located near its border with the Main Street sidewalk. A stairway will lead from the seating to the skateboard/play structure amenities below. The steps will be provided by the Marble Works Partnership, according to Raphael. Much of the material has been recycled, some of it twice. A local farm donated the barrels to turn into planters. The Middlebury College stage production group donated some lumber. The bench wood is native white cedar from the Northeast Kingdom, a variety that is not only locally sourced, it is known for being rot-resistant and needs no pre-treatment.
Among those working on the park is Eliza Margolin, a Middlebury College senior majoring in Architectural Studies. She is one of McLeod’s students.
“We are finished with our theses,” Margolin said. “This (park) is a project to get us to the end of the year, that has roots in the community.”
Margolin is pleased that the students’ work on the pop-up park will not only further their education and professional goals, but also provide a temporary asset for the town.
“The presence of another park in town is really cool,” she said. “And it’s right in the middle of downtown. I also think there is a lot of benefit to having college students work on the project. Especially being a group of seniors — we are on our way out, and the absolute least thing we can do is leave something nice and useful behind.”
Daniel Busi is a UVM student who is also working on the park. He is a junior, majoring in Environmental Science. He likes rolling up his sleeves for some off-campus work.
“It’s hard to get hands-on experience in a lot of classes,” Busi said. “Out of all the classes I have taken at UVM so far, this is definitely the most hands-on. I’m learning a lot of skills so far.”
Amber Vaillancourt is a sophomore at UVM’s Environmental School who is also paying her dues at the park site. She wants to get involved in urban planning after she earns her degree.
“It’s really cool to be able to do something with reclaimed space,” she said. “I’m anxious to see how the community interacts with it.”
Plans call for the pop-up park to have its grand opening on June 12, to coincide with the Middlebury Arts Walk.
“The park will never really be ‘done,’” Raphael explained. “It’s meant to be a work in progress. It will stay open as long as this space is available to us for it. When bridge construction begins to impinge upon this, we will take it down. We’ll try to recycle the material again.”
He believes the park will have an impact on students and the community.
 “I have found the students to be absolutely into the notion of having an opportunity to design and build something and see actual fruits of their efforts emerge from a semester-long course like this,” Raphael said. “They bring their parents at graduation to see something like this, they put it in their portfolios. I think interacting with real-world clients and suppliers is also part of the process.”
The town of Middlebury could have left the Lazarus building site barren and fenced in. Raphael is glad the community took a different tack.
“This could have been a lost space,” Raphael said of the Lazarus building site. “This could have been a derelict foundation that sat here for two years as a hole in the ground and an eyesore. I think the whole idea of making it into something that people can use and enjoy is part of it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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