Middlebury downtown eyed for master plan

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury planning officials are recommending that the town design a master plan for its downtown in order to better coordinate future development in an area that has already undergone the construction of a new municipal building and will face more major changes — a new public park and a disruptive rail bridges project.
It’s a planning process that officials acknowledge could take more than a year and thus could affect the timing of a major economic development project slated for the heart of downtown.
NexBridge Partners has proposed a multi-story building on a town-owned, 1.4-acre parcel off Bakery Lane, a project that would include retail, office and residential uses, along with parking.
Jennifer Murray, Middlebury’s director of planning and zoning, is scheduled to provide the selectboard more details for a downtown master planning process on Tuesday, July 12.
She and Middlebury Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm said they believe a master plan could sharpen the town’s focus on what it would like to see built in the downtown — information they said could help NexBridge Partners in refining what is shaping up as one of the most ambitious mixed-use development proposals in the community’s history.
“I think to myself, ‘If I were NexBridge, wouldn’t I like to know more about the community’s vision earlier rather than later?’” Murray said. “I think it’s good business, and it’s good economic development.”
Malcolm floated the idea of a downtown master plan in a June 21 memo to selectboard members Brian Carpenter, Donna Donahue and Nick Artim. She believes such a process could help NexBridge polish its plans during a time when downtown development is likely to take a backseat to the rail bridges project. That $40 million undertaking will replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail overpasses. The dusty, noisy, work is expected to last well into 2018.
“The benefits of conducting a public process for planning the economic development initiative site include buy-in from the community and the clear direction that it will give the developer,” Malcolm wrote in the memo.
“NexBridge has been put in a very difficult position,” Malcolm added. “They still do not know if the type of project that the community desires is one that they can afford. It would not be fair to have them spend even more money to come before the Development Review Board and have them sent back to the drawing board. Or worse — build an unpopular project in their home community. By the town planning the site in advance, the developer will have a clear understanding of the community’s needs, desire and form without second guessing.”
NexBridge includes four Addison County entrepreneurs: Rob Alberts, principal of the EastView at Middlebury retirement community and a 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; and Bryan Phelps, a real estate professional and recent owner of Noonie Deli in Middlebury.
NexBridge, one of four groups to respond to an initial request for proposals to develop the Bakery Lane parcel, was alone in responding to a second request for proposals. The three other companies passed, with some stating they could not make an adequate profit based on the town’s development specifications.
Phelps said he and his NexBridge colleagues support the suggestion of a downtown master plan and look forward to working with Middlebury officials as the project and the plan both move ahead.
“The NexBridge Partners continue to be committed to ensuring that the right project be built on this important downtown parcel,” he said. “We agree with the planning commission’s view that in light of all the recent changes and challenges facing the downtown, the creation of an overall master plan is the next logical step. Our hope is that we will be active participants in this process as we feel that our vision for the economic development initiative site should be an integral piece of any downtown master plan.”
At the same time, Jamie Gaucher, executive director of the Middlebury Office of Business Development & Innovation, is concerned that NexBridge could become weary of waiting.
“From my perspective, what sort of development and whether or not development will even happen (at the Bakery Lane parcel) has been a running conversation here in Middlebury for somewhere between 10 and 15 years,” Gaucher said. “We’ve had numerous consultants, an amazing amount of input from the citizens of Middlebury, and we’ve been through a public process. We have selected a developer. The real concern I have is losing that developer because the town, in effect, is moving the goalposts.”
But Murray argued a master plan could not only benefit NexBridge, but also other downtown projects that loom in Middlebury’s future. Those include a potential multi-modal transportation hub for local bus and passenger rail travel, future growth at the southern end of Exchange Street, and the eventual reuse of the former Greg’s Meat Market property off Elm Street, which has been idle since April 2015.
She likened the downtown master plan to a baby’s mobile from which all these various projects would hang.
“It would help us integrate all these projects that are coming to the forefront, as well as to plan future infrastructure and transportation improvements,” Murray said. 
Middlebury has a state-designated downtown, meaning it qualifies for grants and tax credits to aid in its enhancement and preservation. Murray and Better Middlebury Partnership Coordinator Karen Duguay last year lobbied for renewal of Middlebury’s downtown designation in front of the Vermont Downtown Board.
“(The board) told us, ‘We wish you had some more robust planning in your downtown,’” Murray said. The panel suggested Middlebury would benefit from a downtown master plan.
Barre, St. Albans, Montpelier and Burlington have all devised master plans for their respective downtowns, according to Murray.
It will ultimately be up to the selectboard to decide whether to proceed with such a planning effort, according to Murray, who is optimistic the community could land grants to hire a consultant to lead the process. A downtown master plan could become an attachment to Middlebury’s comprehensive town plan, she added.
 “I have no stake in it; if (town officials) decide they don’t want to do the master plan, that’s fine with me; we can think of something else,” Murray said.
Malcolm agreed.
“I look at this as an opportunity,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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