Top 10 stories from 2018: Midd’s big dig begins, new parks debated

Those who regularly travel through downtown Middlebury in 2018 saw construction crews drill away on a new drainage system and extend a temporary access road from Water Street to the Battell Block — another warm-up act to the main event that will begin its three-year run beginning this spring: A $72 million plan to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a 360-foot-long concrete tunnel.
Workers in 2018 began drilling at three downtown locations — the site of the former Lazarus Department Store annex next to Printer’s Alley, behind Triangle Park, and alongside the rail line in the Marble Works business complex.
Pedestrians on Main Street couldn’t help but pause to look at work unfold at the former Lazarus building site, where a huge boring machine carved a 5-foot-diameter hole within a 40-foot-deep pit near the railroad tracks. The machine extended the drainage tunnel all the way to edge of the Otter Creek, just bellow the falls.
Work in 2018 also included relocating utilities near the drainage sites, and reimagining Triangle Park and a new public gathering space to be built at the old Lazarus store site off Printer’s Alley.
Dozens of Middlebury residents offered their thoughts on what they believed would be the best features and amenities for the two parks. The Vermont Agency of Transportation and VHB Landscape Architect Mark Hamelin hosted three public meetings to solicit feedback for conceptual designs of both parks, which eventually earned support from the town selectboard if not universal acceptance from those advocating different options.
As currently envisioned, both public spaces will include pedestrian pathways, seating, trees and other plantings. The Triangle Park concept specifically preserves the fountain and includes copious amounts of hardscape for public events. Organizers of the Middlebury Farmers Market are receptive to the Triangle Park plan, which they believe could lead to the market returning downtown. The farmers’ market is currently hosted on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Middlebury VFW headquarters on Exchange Street.
The Better Middlebury Partnership and the citizens’ group Neighbors Together successfully applied for a $75,000 state grant to help promote downtown businesses and amenities during the 2018 phase of work on the rail bridges project. The agenda included shopping promotions, a loyalty rewards program, multi-media advertising campaigns, special events, creation of a website and improved signs and beautification efforts.
One of the more interesting promotions was a downtown block party from 4-8 p.m. on Aug. 15 that included games, kids’ activities, food and live music by the Horse Traders — all on a temporary real-grass lawn that covered a section of Main Street.
That $75,000 grant was anticipated as the first of three annual, like-sized amounts from VTrans to aggressively market and support Middlebury’s downtown for the duration of the project. The most disruptive work is forecasted for a 10-week period during the summer of 2020, when both Main Street and Merchants Row will close while the tunnel is being installed. Railroad freight traffic will be detoured during that timeframe.

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