Opinion: Downtown needs a master plan

If one does not follow the selectboard’s agendas closely, then they are probably not aware that the idea of major development behind the town office and library is alive and being worked on. The EDI committee was formed many months ago to create a Memorandum of Understanding with NexBridge, the only developer that submitted a plan in response to the town’s RFP (request for proposals) for developing the land.
At this time, an MOU has not yet been written, there is no binding document in place and the planning commission now seems to have taken interest and has raised some good questions about the process. As a result, a downtown master planning process is now under consideration by the selectboard and will be discussed further at their July 12 meeting.
I am glad that the selectboard generally sees the merit of doing some master planning. Middlebury deserves that kind of thinking. Concern was expressed at their last meeting about backtracking with NexBridge but I have thought from the start that the board was too hasty in moving ahead with them when experienced developers withdrew from making proposals because it was not an economically viable idea. That should have been a red flag then. The RFP should have been reopened for public reconsideration and the master planning process now is a chance to do that.
By NexBridge’s own plan, they cannot afford to buy the land and possibly cannot afford to build what they proposed without tax abatements, waivers or charging parking fees, much less include the parking that town called for in the RFP. Nor, as of the time of their submission, did they have committed funding or had they done market analysis.
So while the board gave them a nod for their proposal, it was to a plan that had uncertainty, unanswered questions and, most importantly, had no community review. The proposal was presented and accepted at a brief regular meeting agenda time without holding any opportunities for public review of and input on the proposal. I would say many in the community don’t know what their plan is and, with the passing of months, think it has gone away.
Master planning can guide the community and it is the whole community that should determine what their future vision for downtown should be. If the selectboard decides to proceed with a master planning process, it was suggested last week that NexBridge could be included in the effort. With no reflection on NexBridge, I would submit that there is no place at that table for a private developer who has their own interests to look out for. Just as hiring a consultant connected to the developer for writing the MOU was seen as a conflict of interest, so would including the developer in master planning be a conflict of interest.
Additionally, if one developer is included you likely remove the possibility of allowing other developers to respond to any new RFP coming from master planning, as was suggested by some selectmen. Such planning will have a huge impact on the character of our community and it needs to reflect the community, not a developer. If one wants to consult professionals on feasibility, they should be an independent, uninterested party.
Master planning does take time and the railroad bridges project gives the town time as all seem to agree that nothing should take place until the bridges are complete, hopefully in 2018. I agree with the selectboard that the “downtown” for this process is larger than the EDI land and a broader area should be included.
And it is not just about commercial development; it should include other amenities and characteristics we want to preserve or encourage. This is an important opportunity for Middlebury, which I hope the selectboard will follow through on. We have learned I hope that the community wants and should be given a voice in change.
Victoria DeWind

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