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Middlebury narrows its downtown master plan search

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials have selected three finalists to vie for a contract to design a master plan for downtown Middlebury, a document that will shape the shire town’s village for the next 20 years.
This master planning process comes at a critical time in Middlebury’s history. Work will begin in earnest this spring on a $72 million project to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a concrete tunnel. 
This project will result in more green space fronting St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, a reimagined Triangle Park, and a new park off Printer’s Alley that will be named for the Lazarus family.
It should also be noted there’s been a lot of change in the village since Middlebury’s last comprehensive downtown planning effort was conducted in 2000. 
There’s been the creation of Riverside Park in 2014, construction of the Cross Street Bridge and traffic roundabout in 2010, renovation of Town Hall Theater in 2012, construction of a new municipal office building in 2016, and streetscape projects in 2004 and 2011.
Middlebury recently was awarded a total of $108,333 in grants to conduct its master planning. Around $75,000 of that amount came from Vermont’s Better Connections Grant Program, while an additional $33,333 came through the state’s Clean Water Initiative Fund. That clean water money will be used to begin the design of environmentally sensitive stormwater upgrades in the downtown, according to Middlebury Director of Planning & Zoning Jennifer Murray.
“We’re running out of room in our downtown; we’re not one of these downtowns that has a whole block to that can be demolished and we build anew,” Murray said. “Ours are little infill development opportunities here and there. So I think the more we can try to use the master planning process to work with the community to visualize what they want the build environment to look like, the better direction we can give a developer who might be interested in Middlebury.”
Murray earlier this spring sent out a request for qualifications (RFQ) from companies interested in designing Middlebury’s downtown master plan. Seven firms responded. Local planning officials reviewed the applicants’ credentials and picked three that will submit specific proposals to the town by July 3. They include SE Group out of Burlington, Stevens & Associates from Brattleboro, and Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative based in Tennessee.
“We were very fortunate,” Murray said of the caliber of applicants for the master plan contract.
Local officials plan to have a finalist on board by the end of July. The chosen company will have until next March to deliver a final product, one that will be shaped by public feedback from several public forums during the coming months.
The town’s planning commission will serve as the company’s steering committee, and two Middlebury College interns will help survey downtown merchants and stakeholders on their visions for the village.
As part of their final report, the chosen company will be asked, among other items, to deliver a master plan map of the downtown, showing infill development opportunities, potential trail/path/sidewalk connections and links and options for public parking. The firm will also be asked to give special attention to a few specific downtown areas, including:
•The so-called “Bakery Lane municipal area,” which features a town-owned parcel located between the municipal building and Otter Creek that has been set aside for an economic development project.
•Weybridge Street, considered the western gateway into the downtown. It’s bordered by the Middlebury College campus to the west and downtown to the east. The road’s southern end is now zoned to encourage single-family homes, but contains several parcels with development potential as commercial, school/office and higher-density residential uses.
In the RFQ seeking planning firms, the town noted the planning commission has been considering revising zoning in the area, and the RFQ ask for help “visualizing” how the neighborhood, which it refers to as a “transitional zone,” was better integrated into its surroundings, possibly with the inclusion of improved bicycle and pedestrian connections as well as zoning recommendations. 
•Seymour Street, also considered the downtown’s northern gateway. The neighborhood includes both residential and commercial uses.
According to the RFQ, the town seeks help “to create a publicly supported vision for a mixed use, bike-ped friendly corridor that will handle vehicular traffic demands as well as creating an active transportation link connecting the downtown core with biking/hiking destinations to the north” through this area. 
The town also seeks the company’s “knowledge of urban design to assist the planning commission and other participants to visualize alternatives and preferences for new mixed-use development along this street.” 
•East of Court Street (Route 7). Immediately east of downtown are several neighborhoods and destinations that produce significant bicycle and pedestrian traffic that need better connection to downtown, according to the RFQ. The consultant will be asked to work with stakeholders to imagine better ways of doing so.
Murray acknowledged the challenges.
“It was hard designing the scope (of work) because there is so much to be done,” Murray said. “So we’re just focusing on some critical pieces and hopefully this becomes a living document moving forward that we update before the 20 years is up. Because the downtown is changing fast.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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