MIDDLEBURY — The town of Middlebury and Middlebury College are working on a deal that would result in the purchase of the so-called Lazarus Building at 20 Main St., a structure that would be razed to provide a wider and safer Printer’s Alley link between the downtown and the Marble Works complex.
It’s a deal that calls for Middlebury College to purchase the Lazarus Building property and turn it over to the town for prompt demolition. In return, the town would sign over, to the college, the land it owns behind the Ilsley Library. The college would combine that small amount of land with some of its own in the same area — for a total of roughly 1.5 acres — to market to a developer for an economic development initiative aimed at enhancing the vitality of the downtown.
The proposal comes at a time with the town and college are discussing how they can work together on a new municipal building.
The Lazarus Building has been vacant for more than two years. It most recently hosted Green Mountain Shoe & Apparel and Otter Creek Used and Rare Books, businesses that have relocated elsewhere in Middlebury. The trust that owns the building has offered up the space for rent. But the spots have remained unfilled, with James Swift — the attorney representing the Lazarus Trust — citing impending work on the Main Street railroad overpass as a deterrent for prospective tenants. The overpass work will take place very close to 20 Main St.
“It’s been a difficult time, with the railroad property looming over us,” Swift said.
There will be some signs of life in the building as beginning next week the SunCommon solar energy company will operate a pop-up store in the building, but that arrangement will only last through the end of July.
Middlebury’s town plan advocates for the Lazarus Building to be acquired by the town and demolished “to provide improved, safer public access to the riverfront and parking.” But a longstanding covenant has precluded the Lazarus Trust from selling the building until 2015. And covenant aside, the town does not have money in its operating budget to acquire commercial properties. The Lazarus Building, located on 0.15 of an acre, is currently assessed by the town at $287,000.
College and town officials discussed the future of the Lazarus Building at a private luncheon earlier this spring.
“We talked with the college again about it and said, ‘We don’t have the money to buy it,’” Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George said. “The (Lazarus) Trust was interested in leasing it to the town until 2015, but quite frankly we don’t have the funds to do that, either.”
College officials saw the advantages of seeing the Lazarus Building demolished as a way of improving safety for people walking and biking down Printer’s Alley, and as a way of better uniting the Marble Works with the rest of downtown. Printer’s Alley is narrow and currently affords one-way access into the Marble Works. The wider alley without the building would allow better sight lines for drivers and may allow for two-way traffic.
“The Lazarus Building, in most people’s minds, has been somewhat of a stumbling block for integrating the Marble Works with the rest of the downtown area, so to envision a cleaner, more visible, safer way in — and eventually out — of the Marble Works, would be very attractive,” Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz said during a phone interview with the Addison Independent.
“We came up with what we think is a nice arrangement for everyone involved.”
Swift confirmed “an agreement in principle” that has earned the blessing of members of the Lazarus Trust. A written agreement — spelling out the purchase price — still needs to be signed. Swift anticipates a simple procedure in Addison County Probate Court to allow for the property to be sold before 2015.
Kim Smith, principal owner with the Marble Works Partnership, was pleased to hear news that an agreement is near. Along with providing more access to the shopping and business complex — which is 95 percent full — Smith is excited about the pluses that a wider Printer’s Alley would present for pedestrians and cyclists. And the Marble Works is about more than shops, condos and offices these days, Smith noted. Work has begun on an Otter Creek waterfront improvement project that will offer even better views and congregation areas on the Marble Works side of the Otter Creek falls. Smith also believes a wider Printer’s Alley and spruced up waterfront could lead to more redevelopment of the back ends of the Main Street buildings fronting the creek.
“My kudos to the selectboard and college,” Smith said.
It is hoped that the arrangement would also fuel economic development in downtown Middlebury, according to town and college officials. For more than three years now, the town and college have been discussing a joint economic development initiative using the combined total of 1.5 acres of usable land the two entities own between the Ilsley Library and the Otter Creek. But the parties have found some possible sticking points in jointly marketing the property to a prospective developer. Among them: The logistics for forming a limited liability company (LLC) to market the land, and the potential reluctance some developers might have in dealing with the town as a seller.
Having the college as the single entity soliciting a buyer would make more sense, George said, while the town would still have a say in any proposed project through its local development review process.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.