Planning for Middlebury’s downtown is at a crossroads

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury planning officials are again applying for a grant of up to $60,000 to prepare a downtown master plan that will serve as a blueprint for how residents want to see their village core develop in the future.
And some municipal leaders are warning the future will quickly become the present, so they’re lobbying for the launch of a downtown master planning process that was announced two years ago but has stalled because the town has thus far been unsuccessful in landing grant money to help assemble the plan.
“It’s been in limbo for a long time,” Selectman Victor Nuovo said on Thursday. “Whenever (downtown) opportunities come up, we seem to be running into the fact we don’t have a master plan.”
That plan, according to Middlebury Planning & Zoning Director Jennifer Murray, would among other things describe existing downtown assets and resources, and articulate the community’s future wants for that important retail, housing and employment hub. The document could also include a list of potential future downtown projects and their costs.
Establishing a master plan for growth, according to Murray, “flips the conversation from a developer presenting a proposal that everyone has to decide ‘Is this right for our community?’ to ‘I’m a developer implementing your vision that you’ve established as a community.’”
Murray has laid out a schedule calling for the town to apply for a grant from the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s Better Connections Program (BCP) this December and in the meantime begin gathering preliminary information for the plan. Middlebury would learn next March whether it received the grant, which would call for the master plan to be completed within 18 months. With money in hand, the town would hire a consultant by April of 2019, then gather information and community input between May and November of 2019. This would lead to submission of a final plan in January 2020, at which time the planners would begin phasing in the plan’s recommendations, according to Murray.
She said the BCP is the only source for a potential grant large enough ($50,000 to $60,000) to cover Middlebury downtown master planning needs. The town would have to contribute a 10-percent match.
Middlebury in 2016 applied for one of three available BCP grants for its downtown master planning effort, but barely missed out on an award, according to Murray. The community couldn’t re-apply for that grant in 2017 because its town plan was being reviewed by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, according to Murray.
“Nobody did anything wrong; it was just a timing issue,” Murray said. “But this year we should be free and clear and eligible to apply. And I think we stand a good chance of being funded because we’ve been talking to the decision makers at the state for so long. We’re really primed and ready to go, in terms of looking at our future.”
Murray believes the downtown master planning process would greatly benefit from the help of a consultant, who would help with public outreach and other related chores.
She acknowledged a call from some board members to get the master planning under way. At the same time, she believes the timetable she’s recommending would yield a polished product in long-range planning within a reasonable amount of time.
“At the selectboard meeting (on Aug. 14), there seemed a great sense of urgency for doing something now,” Murray said. “As a planner, I’m always thinking about the bigger picture, so waiting until December doesn’t seem like a terribly long time to me, if that’s what it takes in order to do the pre-planning to do this project correctly.”
Dave Donahue, special assistant to Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, said he hopes to see the town make quick progress on a downtown master plan. The college campus is located on the periphery of the downtown, and the institution owns many assets in that area.
“We’re eager to see a downtown Middlebury Master Plan created,” Donahue said during a Thursday phone interview.
“I appreciate folks from the town wanting to get it right, as do I,” he added. “But I also feel a sense of urgency that the lack of a plan could get in the way of a number of things (the community) might consider for the downtown.”
Donahue specifically cited the Ben Franklin store vacancy, the proposed Middlebury passenger rail platform, new parking amenities and the so-called Economic Development Initiative (EDI) property off Bakery Lane as among issues a downtown master plan could help resolve. The college in 2014 ceded to the town its ownership interests in the 1.4-acre EDI parcel that will be used for a mixed-use project designed to spur more economic activity in the downtown. A group of local entrepreneurs, under the name NexBridge Partners, has proposed a multi-story, L-shaped building on a town-owned property that would include retail, office and residential uses, along with parking. The town in 2015 tabled action on the project, according to Becky Dayton, a member of NexBridge Partners and owner of the Vermont Book Shop.
“I am frustrated the town hasn’t made a lot of progress on its downtown master planning effort,” Dayton said on Friday.
Nuovo acknowledged the town’s recent difficulties in securing a planning grant, but suggested the planning effort could get under way more quickly, in-house. Then the town could enhance the effort with a consultant if/when grant money comes in, he said.
Nuovo also didn’t dismiss the idea of the town looking for funds within its tight municipal budget to bankroll the master planning process.
“I’m not opposed to spending the money, but are we without the professional and community wisdom to go at this ourselves?” he said.
Murray said she’d like to get a clear financial message from the selectboard before the master planning effort begins.
“I don’t want to start the public process and not get a grant in December,” Murray said. “While (selectboard members) didn’t say no (to funding), they were brainstorming some different solutions for how to do it.”
Murray stressed that in the meantime, the absence of a master plan shouldn’t stop developers from pitching proposals for the downtown.
“I don’t want the downtown master plan to be seen as an obstacle to growth,” Murray said. “If somebody came and had a really great plan for downtown, they wouldn’t be forced to put it on pause. They could absolutely proceed to the Development Review Board.”
And while a downtown master plan can create a better business climate, Murray said it shouldn’t be perceived as an economic development strategy — particularly as it relates to filling vacant storefronts.
“A lot of those solutions are going to be private sector solutions, or it’s going to be an issue the market is going to resolve on its own,” Murray said.
She acknowledged the best approach would be for individual projects and development concepts proposed for the downtown to “logically follow from a comprehensive, overall downtown master plan.”
Such a process, according to Murray, would best serve projects like the EDI proposal.
“We can’t just plan that in a vacuum,” Murray said. “We have to understand the parking, traffic, circulation and transportation issues, the land use issues surround it, market and housing information — all those other factors that help you see the bigger picture.”
Murray noted the ongoing Middlebury rail bridges project has rallied a lot of citizens to the cause of safeguarding and improving the downtown. She said she hopes to tap that energy for the master planning effort.
“The rail bridges project is causing this community to re-examine its values for downtown and how it manages the downtown,” Murray said. “‘Vision’ and ‘values’ are the two major things you’re trying to figure out through your downtown master planning process.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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