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Is the sky falling in Middlebury?

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By Angelo Lynn

Area residents against any outside development in Middlebury must think the sky is falling.

Within just the past couple of weeks, Middlebury has seen applications to develop a 2,400-square-foot Starbucks coffee house, a 15,000-square-foot Staples, and now a 17,000-square-foot warehouse type building for an Aldi discount food store, plus 4,200 square feet to be leased for commercial/retail uses. Add that to the prospect of Aldi building another office building on an adjacent lot in the future, and the prospect of a 40,000-square-foot commercial building in the downtown behind the Ilsley Library (see stories Page 1A) and that’s a whole lot of change coming down the pike in a hurry.

But is the sky falling down or is this managed growth?

To be fair, the prospects of growth within The Centre Plaza, where Hannafords is located, have always been contemplated. And certainly town officials and residents have been anticipating for the past couple of years some commercial enterprise replacing the dilapidated car wash next to McDonald’s. And to the extent that The Centre Plaza has had the capacity to expand on its existing lot — or could achieve that with adjoining land acquisition — it’s not beyond the pale to believe the town has anticipated a full build-out of that property since its original application.

That the tenants would be national businesses like Starbucks and Staples makes many area residents rebel against the proposals, but that the locations are developed to the respective maximum potential is precisely how Middlebury should be encouraged to grow. The parking lots are already in place; the appearance of the existing shopping plaza would be improved; and the expanded traffic should not be stretched beyond the infrastructure’s current ability to handle that increase. That is planned growth, and certainly it’s preferable to having additional buildings erected on vacant land on the Route 7 strip.

To argue that The Centre should not be fully developed is foolhardy and against the town’s vision to cluster such retail growth. Unfortunately, the rent on such space is high enough that local retailers find it difficult to afford — leaving larger chain stores the primary tenants. That will likely be true in most new developments whether they are downtown or on the outskirts of town.

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Retail and commercial development within Middlebury South Village causes more of a concern precisely because it extends the “strip” development of Route 7 into Court Street and what could be termed the “village proper.” There has been an undefined line between where the “village look” of the town begins (approximately at Middle Road where the stop light is) and where the town had years ago allowed “strip” development to occur (which had been just south of the Middle Road area on out to Foster Motors.)

But to allow intensive commercial development to encroach another two blocks north on Route 7 to Creek Road will certainly change what had been a less intensive use along that side of the road. Specifically, the “big box” appearance of the Aldi store and the prospect of Aldi building an adjacent retail store in future years — plus the prospect of a chain restaurant in that development — foretells a significant change in the appearance to the town’s southern entrance. It is also hard to imagine the addition of 21,200-square-feet of retail space, plus another future building and a chain restaurant, would not significantly add stress to the downtown’s economic health. As a single commercial project (Aldi) and associated development, the development review board would have reason to question whether there would not be, as the town plan asks developers to prove, “unmitigated undue adverse impact on the cultural and economic vitality of the downtown.”

(The developer of that site originally tried to encourage local entrepreneurs to locate there, we understand, but found no takers — mostly because of higher rents needed to meet today’s high costs of construction. And if local retailers or commercial enterprises can’t be found, the question becomes what other types of development or use could that land have?)

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The prospects for a 40,000-square-foot commercial building downtown behind the Ilsley Library, along with an enlarged parking garage that could hold 200 or more cars, is exciting and could provide the downtown with ways to draw shoppers into the heart of town. But there are reasons to be concerned that future tenants, unless subsidized or unless the developers agree upfront to keep tenants local, might also be national chain stores. A Sears or JC Penney or Target comes to mind as an anchor store — posing the question: just how much economic harm would such a store located in the downtown do to other downtown businesses?

One point is clear. Growth rarely happens without displacement of some sort. Middlebury has done a good job of emphasizing in its town plan that the ultimate goal is to maintain a strong and vibrant economic and cultural center within the downtown. That doesn’t mean, however, that the town has enshrined protection against competition for each individual downtown business.

The decisions that must be made in reviewing these applications will first consider the overall economic impact on the health of the downtown. But while the board will attempt to base those decisions on hard facts and objective measures, subjective reasoning will have a role as well. A town’s aesthetic appearance, its culture, its business community, its persona if you will, are important measures that can’t be defined in economic or square-footage terms. Judgment calls will and should be made.

Prior to those decisions, much public input should be gathered, debated and fully considered.

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