Middlebury officials backing downtown master plan
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on July 12 agreed to support the planning commission’s quest for a grant to help create a master plan for downtown Middlebury. It’s a document that supporters believe would lead to more careful and structured growth in an area of the community that has seen a lot of change recently, and is being sized up for more.
While the board was unanimous in its support of a grant application, some board members said they don’t want to see a master planning effort — likely to take more than a year — potentially postpone or derail NexBridge Partners’ current planning for a mixed-use development off Bakery Lane, or an Ilsley Library renovation/expansion project that is in the works.
Local planning officials are recommending the master plan in light of several recent downtown projects, and others that are in the offing. The town recently completed a new municipal building at 77 Main St. A new public park will soon be installed at 94 Main St., once it is cleared of the former municipal building and gym.
Looking into the near future, downtown Middlebury will soon be in some upheaval during a lengthy project to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges. A group of local entrepreneurs has confirmed interest in building a large economic development project on town-owned land off Bakery Lane. And the Ilsley Library trustees are on the verge of hiring an architect to design repairs and more space for the historic library building at 75 Main St.
Middlebury could also eventually see an application for a multi-modal transportation hub for bus and passenger rail travel. And there’s also the potential for future growth at the southern end of Exchange Street and the eventual reuse of the former Greg’s Meat Market property off Elm Street.
Jennifer Murray, Middlebury’s director of planning and zoning, said a master plan would include a written document “that provides a long-term vision for downtown Middlebury, so that development in downtown can be integrated properly with existing and future community assets.”
She added a master plan could become an asset to developers, in terms of giving them a better vision of how the community would like to see its downtown built out, and this would give applicants an early sense of how their applications might be viewed by the Development Review Board.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, Selectmen Victor Nuovo and Nick Artim supported the grant application, with the proviso that those considering downtown building applications not be placed in limbo while the master planning process takes place.
Artim noted that NexBridge is an association of several local entrepreneurs seeking to develop the town-owned land off Bakery Lane. He said NexBridge is working closely with the town to design something mutually beneficial.
“While I am a fan of planning, I am also reluctant to give up opportunities,” Artim said, adding some area businesses people have voiced concerns about a potential “stall process.”
“We have a developer that’s invested in the community, and they also represent the next generation we are handing the town over to,” Artim said of NexBridge.
Nuovo is the selectboard’s liaison to the library building committee, and he has also been interested in the so-called “Economic Development Initiative” proposal being crafted be NexBridge.
“These are local people who have really invested in the town … and they are going to have to do something that they can live with for a rather long time,” Nuovo said of his confidence in the NexBridge group.
NexBridge Partners, in a statement to the Addison Independent earlier this month, said they are currently on board with the concept of a downtown master plan.
“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,” the group said through its statement.
Murray hopes other developers see the issue the same way and realize that Middlebury continues to be open for business.
“We don’t want the master plan to be a moratorium on building in downtown,” Murray said.
As for the Ilsley Library’s plans, she said, “I personally don’t see any problem with the library doing its expansion if they are working with a qualified designer and then we just try to figure out how that integrates with everything down the line.”
Former Middlebury Planning Commission Chairwoman Victoria DeWind recommended that town officials begin their master planning process at the grassroots level.
“I think you have to back off and go back to the community to get a better picture of the downtown from the community,” she said. “That’s why I hope that if there is a master planning process, that you start with talking to the community, that you don’t start off with a plan and say, ‘What do you think?’”
Current Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm said the timing appears right for a downtown master planning process. That’s because of the impending rail bridges project.
“The railroad piece is what is giving us this opportunity,” Malcolm said. “We know we are going to be torn up until the end of 2018.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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