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Building, parking garage pitched for downtown Middlebury parcel

MIDDLEBURY — A coalition of Addison County businesspeople has emerged as the only group still in the running to develop Middlebury’s so-called “Economic Development Initiative (EDI)” property, one of the last remaining parcels available to build upon in the downtown.
NexBridge Partners LLC was among four Vermont companies that had been invited to respond to Middlebury’s request for proposals (RFPs) to develop the 1.42-acre, town-owned parcel off Bakery Lane, behind the Ilsley Public Library. NexBridge was alone in responding to the RFP at Monday’s deadline. The other groups that had been in the mix — DEW Properties LLC of Williston; Redstone of Burlington; and The Retrovest Company, also of Burlington — elected to take a pass.
NexBridge includes a partnership of five Addison County entrepreneurs. They include Rob Alberts, principal of the EastView at Middlebury retirement community and founder of Middlebury Fitness; Becky Dayton, owner of the Vermont Book Shop; Chris Eaton, long involved in residential real estate development and solar equipment sales; Aaron Harris, principal of Tiger Ventures, LLC; and Bryan Phelps, a real estate professional and former owner of Noonie Deli in Middlebury.
Also on board the NexBridge team are such local companies as Bread Load Corp., Phelps Engineering and LandWorks.
“We’re certainly very excited about the prospect of continuing through this process,” Phelps said on Wednesday of NexBridge’s RFP filing. “We feel very strongly that this is really the beginning of the process, that our ideas and concepts and designs are a starting point for discussions with the (RFP) review committee and then the town of Middlebury. Our interest in the project is to make sure it gets done correctly and we understand that will involve getting input from the variety of stakeholders in our community.”
PRELIMINARY PLANS
So NexBridge will face no competition during the coming months as it fine-tunes and unveils to the Middlebury public its vision for a mixed-use development that would be nestled between the town library and the Otter Creek. The group shared its preliminary plans in its RFP response submitted on Monday. Those tentative plans call for, among other things:
• A single, vertical L-shaped, mixed-use building with a parking garage and “ample open space.” The building would include one three-story wing and one four-story wing, “with scale and massing consistent with other downtown buildings,” according to the company’s RFP response. One of the wings would run north-south and would front the existing upper library parking lot. The other wing would run east-west near the northern edge of the lot, with its massing consistent with the nearby Battell Block. Located at the inside corner of the two wings (facing southeast) would be a two-story office/retail space with an angled façade enhanced by its solar orientation while framing a “vibrant outdoor public space.”
It’s a development that would include residential, commercial and professional uses, as well as a public plaza and enough parking to accommodate the tenants, their customers and the public, according to NexBridge’s RFP response.
“It will transform what is now an underutilized, unsightly parking lot into an attractive, revenue enhancing and welcome cornerstone of Middlebury’s downtown area,” reads the response. “The project will be scaled and designed in accordance with Middlebury’s native architecture; sited to make optimal use of established infrastructure, topography and utilities; and structured to highlight our classic New England village location on the Otter Creek waterfront.”
• A total of approximately 12,500 square feet of available retail/office space and 15,000 square feet of designated office space. Phelps said NexBridge wants to be flexible in its planning for the office and retail components so it can respond to market forces. For example, he said the demand could ultimately be for 100-percent office space and no retail. He also stressed plans for the retail space call for a variety of small stores that would complement — and not compete against — current downtown enterprises. He said NexBridge would not scout a major store to take all of the retail space.
• A total of around 25,000 square feet of residential space that would include a mix of market rate and “affordably-priced units.” Tentative plans call for four studio apartments; seven one-bedroom units; 13 two-bedroom units; and two three-bedroom units.
 “The national trend is that people want to be closer to the downtown, and we think this is a good direction for Middlebury to go as well,” Phelps said, noting the new residents would help fuel the downtown economy.
Phelps added the new office space and retail stores would provide new jobs and serve as a magnet for additional shoppers and employees to do business in Middlebury.
• The possibility of a small-scale conference center for the building tenants and community at large.
• Energy-efficient construction that would take advantage of the site’s exposure to natural light.
“The solar exposure of the proposed structure allows for a solar PV installation ideally situated with no adverse impact on the overall aesthetic,” the NexBridge narrative reads. “The building will be designed and engineered to meet or exceed the energy code.
“The building as conceived could easily achieve a LEED Certified level and could possibly even gain Silver status,” the narrative adds.
LEED certification is the nationally recognized standard for measuring building sustainability.
Phelps said he and his associates have already looked into financing, which could include a combination of New Market Tax Credits, funding through the Vermont Economic Development Authority, bank loans and equity investment.
TOWN OPTIMISTIC, BUT QUESTIONS REMAIN
Jamie Gaucher is Middlebury’s director of business development and innovation, and chairs the 11-member Economic Development Initiative RFP Committee that will vet the NexBridge proposal and decide whether to recommend it to the town selectboard.
He was optimistic following his first review of the NexBridge RFP response early this week.
“The proposal seems to address all of the requirements that were in the RFP,” he said during an interview on Tuesday.
That RFP called upon participating companies to craft plans that, among other things, could demonstrate an “understanding of the historic development pattern of Middlebury’s village center;” recognize the limited public parking opportunities surrounding the site; reflect a commitment to making their building(s) energy efficient; and would result in a project that could contribute to the  “overall economic, cultural and social well being of our community.”
Redstone Principal J. Larry Williams Jr. said he and his associates worked hard to devise a project that would meet Middlebury’s RFP requirements while assuring a decent return on investment. But it didn’t pan out.
“To design a project that was economically feasible would not have met the constraints of the RFP,” Williams said.
Williams cited, as an example, parking stipulations that included replacing existing spaces that would be erased by the project while also providing additional spaces to meet the needs of the project.
“It looked like it was a beauty contest to see who could come forward with the nicest looking project,” Williams said.
He also said that all four companies in the running had to reach out to some of the same people asking them up-front to be potential tenants. That’s a lot of competition for a rather limited pool, he noted.
Feedback from the public and town officials could drive major re-design of the project in a manner that could make it financially untenable during the middle of the review process, Williams added.
“It’ll probably be more difficult a project than people realize,” Williams said.
Still, Williams said he reached out to NexBridge officials to see if they were interested in joining forces on a plan. That ultimately didn’t work out.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George acknowledged being somewhat surprised that only one company elected to respond to the RFP. But he acknowledged the commitment of time and resources that companies were facing to see the process through.
“It’s a very complex potential project,” George said. “My sense is that for the things the town is really looking for, there’s not  a lot of opportunities for profit. I know that area is complex — we have run into it from a soils issue, wastewater, utilities… There are probably a lot of unknowns for folks that don’t have the background for working in the community.”
Still, he is pleased that NexBridge followed through.
“One of the encouraging things is that the local group is made up of people who know this community very well, inside and out, and probably have a good sense of what can be done down there and still have some economic benefit to the investors, whereas that might have scared off some of the others,” he said. “I suspect (NexBridge) has put a lot of work into this, so it’s probably a good project.”
NEXT STEPS
The EDI committee was scheduled to meet this Thursday, Aug. 6, at 5 p.m. in the town offices to take its first look at the NexBridge RFP response and chart a course for the review process that will unfold. That process, Gaucher said, will involve public presentations from NexBridge during which feedback will be requested of town officials and community members.
“I’m excited about it,” Gaucher said.
Officials pointed out that the process could end without a project recommendation to the selectboard. At that point the board would have to decide the next step in trying to develop the EDI site.
If a NexBridge project does get green-lighted by the selectboard, it will go through the requisite state and local permitting processes. A best-case scenario, Phelps said, could result in a spring 2016 construction start and a completed project within 18 to 20 months.
“That is an aggressive timeline given the public process that needs to happen before that,” Phelps acknowledged.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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