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College gets feedback on concepts for its new town park

MIDDLEBURY — Almost 50 Middlebury residents on Monday gathered to look at and make suggestions on preliminary plans for a park to be created later this year by Middlebury College on the site of the town’s soon-to-be-demolished former municipal building and gym.
They met in Twilight Hall, a college building and former Middlebury town school that overlooks the roughly 1-acre site that lies in the triangle formed by South Main, College and Academy streets. In exchange for its help in paying for construction of the new town offices and town recreation center, Middlebury College will gain title to the triangle of town land.
When the brick town buildings are gone and replaced with a mostly open park, Twilight Hall will become more visible from the south end of downtown — the park was portrayed at the meeting in slides and on one of the easels set up by David Donahue, special assistant to the Middlebury College president, and landscape architect Keith Wagner.
Donahue, the chairman of a town-gown advisory group that has been working since September on the park project, called Monday’s overflow turnout “awesome” and “a tribute to the importance” of the triangular space that lies where Middlebury’s downtown and the eastern edge of Middlebury College meet.
Donahue said the meeting’s purpose was twofold: to introduce two “pretty preliminary” concepts put forth by Wagner and the advisory group, and to hear from residents.
“We want this to be conversational,” said Donahue, adding, “We want to hear from you.”
The advisory group has already had formal and informal feedback on a plan it hopes to make final by June, allowing for construction to be wrapped up by this fall.
“I’ve heard from quite a few people,” Donahue said.
CONCEPT DETAILS
Donahue said in creating the “initial concepts” on display on Monday that the group worked from a set of principles, largely spelled out in the agreement between town and college officials.
Those guiding principles included using the site’s natural topography; making the park inviting, family-friendly and different from existing town parks; keeping maintenance costs low; providing a variety of seating options and styles, areas of shade and sun, and flat areas; making it accessible and easy to move around in; allowing for markers to honor the site’s history; and creating infrastructure such as lighting and Wi-Fi.
Both concepts showed an open “play lawn” of almost half an acre at the west end and a “hard-scaped” point at the east end that could host public art. In between the drawings included a mix of seating, shade trees, two crossing pathways, play structures, picnic tables and plantings to act as buffering from traffic.
The play lawn could host events such as movies, concerts or even a farmers’ market, Donahue said, as well as informal recreation.
Wagner added that plans envisioned a space for public art at the narrow end of the park at the downtown end. The preliminary plans also showed two pathways crossing the middle of the park, one of them flanked by a low wall doubling as a seating bench. Pictures on one of the easels showed children playing on boulders and walking on log structures that could double as benches.
The proposals also show shade trees scattered around the downtown end, hedges protecting the flat area (and a rain garden on one of them facing College Street), and other seating that includes picnic tables overlooking the flat area and a seating pavilion across from Middlebury Market and Sama’s Café. A play area at the south end of the open space could include play structures.
The main goal for the park, Donahue said, is to create “a place where everyone feels included,” residents and college students alike. Another meeting is planned on the campus to get feedback from students, and another gathering in the town is also possible, he said.
Donahue said the group as part of its research looked at other parks across the country to see what “energizes those spaces.”
The college will pay for and maintain the park, which will remain a park for at least 99 years. Its use can only change then with approval of the town. Other conditions include that existing parking be retained and that no buildings be placed on the site.
Donahue, in response to a question, made it clear that it would be a public park, not a place for the college to put up its own welcome sign.
“It’s not going to say that,” he said. “We don’t have that slide.”
FEEDBACK
Audience members offered a series of suggestions and critiques.
Among the suggestions were rest rooms, outdoor skating in the winter, games such as horseshoes and bocce, internal seating away from traffic to allow for quiet sitting and picnicking, building children’s slides into the slopes, fountains, more room for public art, and an attractive “posting kiosk” that residents could use to publicize local events and could be placed near the narrow end.
Donahue said the advisory group would take all suggestions seriously, but probably couldn’t make use of all of them.
“One of the challenges we’re going to have is the competition of lots of good ideas,” he said. 
Some suggestions made could fall outside the college’s budget for the property and the guidelines the town and college have agreed upon — those might include a visitors center and an underground parking garage.
Critiques included Victoria DeWind’s question as to why the space was being considered separately from the empty lawn on the opposite side of Twilight Hall.
“It seems like a lot of people want a lot of this triangle,” DeWind said. “Why not consider it part of Storrs Park?”
Donahue answered the advisory group had been aware “that if we try to do everything for everybody we won’t do anything well,” and that is was a fair question to consider what could happen to the other nearby open space, but one the advisory group itself could not answer.
“We should open up a conversation over what should happen there,” he said. “It’s a great suggestion. We will need to bring other people into the conversation to make it happen.”
Later, DeWind said the project should not necessarily be wed to its timetable if both areas could be included.
“You should take the time you need to do it right,” she said.
Sam Ostrow said the park should be distinctive enough to give residents and students a reason to make it a destination. Middlebury, he said, unlike more urban areas needs a park that will bring its residents together to socialize and to create excitement, not one to provide an oasis, while this park must also give students a compelling reason to leave campus.
“In Middlebury there is the need for interaction with people,” Ostrow said. “There has to be a really good reason to go here.”
Donahue said he was confident the new park would meet those goals.
“I agree with you,” he said. “I’m optimistic we’ll have something exciting there.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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