Master plan charts Middlebury’s growth
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday got its first look at a proposed development playbook for the community’s downtown, a 138-page document that suggests areas where housing, artistic endeavors and a thriving retail/restaurant scene could flourish with the right investment and foresight.
The “2020 Downtown Middlebury Master Plan” has been three years in the making, a product of many hours of public testimony and the collective efforts of the town’s planning commission, Director of Planning & Zoning Jen Murray, and a consulting team that included Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative, Horsley Witten Group, Jon Stover & Associates, and Mōd Transportation Consulting.
At the plan’s foundation are six guiding principles: Inclusivity, with gathering places and destinations for all; housing choices; economic vibrancy; cultural vibrancy; transportation choices; and sustainability and resiliency.
Authors cautioned the plan isn’t set in stone; rather, it’s a broad vision that could happen over time, depending on the willingness of landowners and town officials to work together to pursue some of the master planning concepts.
“I want people to understand that it’s very high-level, aspirational; just some big ideas,” Murray told the board during Tuesday’s Zoom meeting.
Among the many ideas:
• Consider using areas of the Marble Works complex as a potential location to add small shops and artisan/maker spaces or live-work units that will draw more customer traffic.
• Activate the town green in the winter for events and activities.
• Expand solar energy production downtown. Take advantage of existing mapping of roof suitability for solar by college students. Require that new construction be built to accommodate rooftop solar generation.
• Bring the farmer’s market back downtown year-round to enhance local interdependence as well as community-building.
• Add River Trail connections according to the Green Network Plan: along the west side of Otter Creek to Otter View Park in Weybridge; along Bakery Lane; and on the rail access road.
• Require development projects of a certain scale to use green infrastructure for storm water management if technically feasible.
• Use an existing Municipal Planning Grant to hire a planning consultant to assist in updating zoning regulations to encourage vibrant, walkable neighborhoods surrounding downtown and allow the variety and density of housing types contemplated in this plan.
• Consider incentives for property owners, such as a revolving loan fund for upgrading existing rental housing and encouraging conversion of upper-story spaces on Main Street into apartments. Encourage building owners to have more conversations with the town planning staff about future aspirations for their property, and assist them in accessing funding assistance and tax incentives available within our designated downtown.
• Given the impacts of COVID-19 on the market for short-term rentals, develop resources to help AirBnB owners convert their rentals into for-sale products.
• Develop a town-wide bicycle and pedestrian plan proposing more detailed interventions for priority intersections and corridors as well as new linkages and easement acquisition.
• Seek grant funding to hire a consultant to prepare a Downtown Parking Inventory and Management Plan, including recommendations about charging for parking and funding future parking infrastructure improvements. The plan should calculate and compare costs to build structured parking (typically $25,000-$40,000 per space) and to maintain existing public parking in lots such as Frog Hollow.
• Expand and support downtown’s niche market in vintage clothing, used books, and used outdoor gear, which fits with the community’s environmental ethos. A supportive event could be a gear swap including kayaks and canoes to test in Otter Creek, display tents, and a portable rock climbing wall to test out gear.
• Consider giving incentives to a shop with practical goods to move downtown, perhaps the locally owned One Dollar Market, Martin’s Hardware, or Homeport (BTV).
• Work with Middlebury College to allow its meal plans to include some access to local restaurants.
• Town should work with a variety of private property owners (including Town Hall Theater, Middlebury College and the Marble Works) to establish one or more permanent locations to permit food carts.
• Create a town fund to purchase prime redevelopment properties and hold them until the right investor comes along.
• Amend zoning to create even more options for constructing and converting additions and accessory structures into dwelling units on existing large residential lots. Combine these with design guidelines to preserve the character of historic neighborhoods surrounding downtown.
• Consider purchase of the Ben Franklin building by the town or a local entity, then solicit a developer to renovate the building for commercial and residential purposes.
Many people shared in compiling the master plan ideas.
“I feel really positive about the 100s of people we talked to at all different levels — in focus groups, in person, in public meetings,” Murray said. “I really feel this is a plan of the people, and I learned an immense amount about Middlebury and how they feel about the town, through this process.”
RIVERWALK AND MORE
The plan sets several “priority goals and strategies” for the coming decade and beyond, including building 30 new units of affordable housing in the downtown area by 2024; improving Bakery Lane and Mill Street as fun, pedestrian-oriented green alleys with new green stormwater infrastructure and riverfront access; redirecting large truck traffic over Cross Street Bridge and out of the downtown core; exploring opportunities related to the arrival of Amtrak passenger rail service; and creating a “riverwalk trail” from downtown to Weybridge.
Downtown development scenarios already in progress are acknowledged in the plan. Chief among them: A major, mixed-use commercial-retail-office-housing plan pitched by NexBridge Partners for town-owned land behind the Ilsley Library.
Also included in the plan: Miniature master plans outlining potential development scenarios for several downtown neighborhoods, including Bakery Lane, Park Street, Washington Street (near Shaw’s Supermarket), the Marble Works and land adjacent to St. Mary’s Church, off Shannon Street. Specifically mentioned is a “pocket neighborhood” surrounding St. Mary’s that would blend housing and space for businesses — such as a corner store or daycare facility. Housing could include large homes, row houses, neighborhood-scale apartment buildings, and accessory dwelling units. Conceptual plans show a new road connecting Mill Street and Shannon Street, thus minimizing the traffic impact of additional residents on any particular street. The pocket neighborhood would include tiny parks and greens, connected by tree-lined streets with sidewalks.
The Middlebury selectboard is slated to vote on adopting the downtown master plan on Tuesday, Nov. 10. In the meantime, it’s drawing some very positive feedback.
“It was one of the most exciting pieces of work I’ve been part of in my many years with the planning commission,” said Barbara Saunders. “We were so lucky with the (consultants) we hired and (Murray’s) stewardship of the process. It’s hard to imagine now in our COVID world how exciting it was just about 12 months ago to start this process, and how fun it was.”
Planning commission member Chris Robbins said, “I’ve always been wanting something like what this plan shows, especially the neighborhood around St. Mary’s. It shows how you can really fit some more development around places that you have, rather than spreading it out more and more on the outskirts. I hope we can make this stuff happen.”
Selectman Nick Artim said he was ready to endorse the plan on Tuesday, but is content to wait until Nov. 10. He also said he’s spoken to some developers who’ve told him the document is something they can work with.
“It avoids being heavily prescriptive, it gets into a performance-based vision of what we’re trying to achieve, and allows flexibility for these design professionals to come up with a good project that will fit not just now, but in many years going forward,” he said.
The complete Middlebury downtown master plan can be found at tinyurl.com/y5hxpun4.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.
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