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Upgrades loom for Middlebury parks; public input sought

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury-area residents have two more opportunities to comment on proposed re-designs of Triangle Park and a new public gathering spot at the former Lazarus Department Store location off Printer’s Alley.
The meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 27, at the Middlebury selectboard’s regularly scheduled meeting, and on Wednesday, Dec. 5. Both meetings are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at the Middlebury municipal building at 77 Main St. 
The two downtown parks are due for significant upgrades — including landscaping, pathways and other public amenities — as part of a $71 million plan to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row overpasses with a concrete tunnel, work that will get into high gear next spring. Local officials anticipate the vast majority of the park improvements will be paid with state and federal funds.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) conducted feedback sessions in June and September to hear how local residents, shoppers, merchants and property owners want to see the parks updated for the long haul. Those meetings drew a lot of people who pitched a variety of ideas on how the parks could be updated to create better spaces for public gatherings and casual enjoyment.
VTrans earlier this month urged town officials to quickly pick their preferred designs for Triangle and Printer’s Alley parks, in an effort to refine those plans and get the work scheduled for construction. Selectboard members have vowed to pick final designs by Tuesday, Dec. 11.
Along with VTrans officials, the feedback sessions included landscape architect Mark Hamelin of VHB Engineers and Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison for the downtown rail bridges project.
Gish said some key themes emerged from the two meetings, including:
•  A belief that Triangle Park should serve as a public space for events and gatherings to drive economic development downtown.
•  Paving stones, as opposed to grass, should be maintained to facilitate gathering in portions of Triangle Park.
•  Printer’s Alley should serve as a gateway connecting the Marble Works shopping district and Main Street.
•  Middlebury’s downtown green spaces — such as the town green, Printer’s Alley and Riverfront Park — should be interconnected.
Since St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church is located between the town green and Triangle Park, it is a major stakeholder in how that public space is eventually re-fashioned and used. Gish said St. Stephen’s leaders have stressed the importance integrating the church with the town green and Triangle Park “while still preserving the sanctity of the (church’s) memorial garden.”
Hamelin, the landscape architect, has mapped out two landscaping scenarios (see accompanying images) for each park, using advice gathered from the June and September meetings.
CONCEPT B (ABOVE) features a little more hardscape in Triangle Park.
“Both designs try to meet the requests … to create space that would accommodate public events,” Gish said. “The (Middlebury) Farmers Market became the most frequently mentioned event that cold be held in the downtown area and would bring people back downtown and benefit everyone.”
Gish also believes both designs make an effort to “simplify the space” and “provide the town with a platform from which to look more deeply at how (stakeholders) want to use the space in the future.”
When it coms to Triangle Park, one of the design options features more “hardscape” than the other (which maintains more grass).
State historic preservation officials have determined the Triangle Park fountain must be kept in place, though planners have flexibility in where it can be sited on the property.
Both options also feature a new crosswalk leading from Triangle Park to the new park at Printer’s Alley. The selectboard is considering a request to name that property “Lazarus Family Park.” Both options depict the new park as having a pathway bordered by trees and shrubs, leading into the Marble Works.
Middlebury resident Dave Hohenschau is a professional designer and senior planner with Community Workshop LLC, a company that helps municipalities engage local citizens in planning public amenities, including parks. He confessed some frustration with the way the downtown park planning process has been unfolding in Middlebury, believing organizers should have produced basic designs sooner to serve as templates for public feedback.
“It’s taken so long to get these (designs) that it’s rushing the last step,” Hohenschau said.
He’s hoping for a big turnout at both the Nov. 27 and Dec. 5 meetings, and stressed the importance of Triangle Park as a focal point within the downtown’s overall landscape.
“If you were going to raise a banner over the heart of downtown Middlebury, (Triangle Park) would be the spot,” he said.
Amey Ryan is member of the Better Middlebury Partnership Board and chairs the Middlebury Downtown Improvement District Commission. She said she was disappointed with initial designs generated for the two parks, and with VTrans’ recent plea for Middlebury to hurry in selecting its favorite designs.
Ryan also voiced concern the town’s planning commission, development review board (DAC) — and Middlebury College — weren’t formally invited to participate in the vetting of park designs.
That said, she’s heartened by the fact that people have two more chances to weigh in in the parks and believes the planning process is now in a better place.
“In order for people to feel good about the process, the process has to be seen through,” Ryan said.
Gish, in the most recent entry into his rail bridges project blog, said the selectboard has asked the planning commission and the DAC to provide written comments on the design alternatives.
To learn more about the park designs, visit Gish’s blog at middleburybridges.org/project-blog, and go to tinyurl.com/yc7y3x5v.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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