November 22, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — A standing-room crowd packed the Ilsley Public Library meeting room on Monday to urge the Middlebury Development Review Board (DRB) to reject proposed Staples and Starbucks stores that would be sited in, and adjacent to, The Centre shopping plaza off Route 7 South.
Some of the more than 60 residents, one of whom presented the DRB with a petition bearing more than 1,000 names, told DRB members the new stores would be out of character with Middlebury and could substantially weaken already established family-owned stores in the downtown.
The developer Myron Hunt Inc. — which owns The Centre — is proposing both stores. The 14,600-square-foot Staples would be built next to the Hannaford Supermarket in The Centre. The 1,700-square-foot Starbucks would be erected on an adjacent parcel now occupied by the former Middlebury Car Wash.
Chris Hunt, a principal of Myron Hunt Inc., represented the company at Monday’s hearing. He said he believes neither of the two stores would put a dent in Middlebury’s current retail scene.
“We realize that without a healthy, vibrant downtown economy, we can’t exist,” Hunt said. “It is purely a question of striking the right balance and we do not want to cause an imbalance.”
Hunt pointed to the proposed Staples as an example of a store that could help bring a better balance of stores to Middlebury, thereby giving shoppers less incentive to shop in the commercial hubs of Rutland and Chittenden counties.
“The Staples is a store that has been designed for the smaller town,” Hunt said. “It is roughly 10,000 square feet smaller than their average store. It’s in fact smaller than many of the drugstores we’ve seen.”
Staples, according to Hunt, has been looking to establish a store in Middlebury for “the past several years.”
He said the Staples would offer office supplies and furniture, electronics, faxes, scanners — but not stationary.
“This is a category (of merchandise) that is not currently available in the downtown,” Hunt said of Staples’ offerings. “This is a category where people are going to other towns to purchase these items. This is a way we feel we are able to complement what is already in existence within the smaller local market.”
John Tenny of Mill Bridge Construction, hired by Myron Hunt Inc. to help design the project, noted the Staples would be located within an existing shopping center.
“This represents a consolidation of development within an existing resource or infrastructure,” Tenny said. “This adds a store to a shopping center that has a parking network, traffic control network that serves shopping needs well. (The Centre) has enough parking to serve this store, as well as the other stores.”
The proposed Starbucks and Staples would add an estimated 107 new vehicle trips to Court Street during the morning and an estimated 76 during the evening, according to a traffic study commissioned by Myron Hunt Inc. and submitted to the town on Monday.
Hunt said the Starbucks store — which would feature drive-through service — would not have a franchise look, but would be built in an architectural style more harmonious with a small town. He added the Starbucks would create more orderly traffic flow in and out of the site and would supplant a current eyesore — the now-defunct car wash, though several people in Monday’s crowd questioned why the company hadn’t taken it down already.
Hunt said the Starbucks would be screened from its southerly approach.
Christian Keidel, a district manager for Starbucks in South Burlington, said the company’s Middlebury store would likely employ 17-20 people, who would qualify for medical benefits at 20 hours per week.
DRB member Nancy Malcolm asked Hunt if he had tried to accommodate Starbucks within existing storefront vacancies in The Centre. Hunt said he had, but Starbucks officials said they wanted their own store.
“This is their preferred model — to be a free standing store,” Hunt said, adding “I don’t think there would be a store without a drive-through.”
Members of Middlebury’s Design Advisory Committee (DAC) were also on hand at Monday’s meeting. Some of them gave a less than glowing appraisal of the proposed stores. Natalie Peters, a member of the DAC, said she was disappointed developers had not taken an opportunity to site the stores in a more inviting manner to residential developments springing up near The Centre. She and others noted the two new buildings, like the rest of The Centre, are oriented toward Route 7.
“I don’t hear you addressing what’s happening around you and how you would address it,” Peters said. “I wonder how you want to address your place in context with what’s coming up around you.”
Glenn Andres, another member of the DRB, agreed.
“It seems that with these buildings, we should see a much more coherent vision of how The Centre is planned,” Andres said.
Many other residents also voiced their concern about the two stores.
Frank Burkle, a former owner of the Computer Alternatives store in Middlebury, took issue with Hunt’s assertion that Staples and Starbucks would not harm current businesses in town.
“There are seven … pretty strong morning café situations here,” Burkle said. “Let’s keep that real.”
He added there are several small computer businesses in the Middlebury area that could be hurt by a Staples.
“I don’t want it going in the (meeting) minutes that there are no computer places here and no stationary places here when there are,” Burkle said.
Former town planning commission Chairwoman Susan DeWind, among others, referenced several passages in Middlebury’s town plan that discourage large-scale retail ventures outside of the downtown.
Those passages include:
• “Any new development must reflect and relate to existing settlement to the north and east, and should relate to and complement the existing downtown uses. Because the continuing economic vitality of our downtown so directly shapes the character of our community, development (on Court Street/Route 7) shall not overshadow the downtown area as Middlebury’s business, civic and cultural center.”
• “A fundamental objective of this town plan is to maintain Middlebury’s image as a traditional Vermont town and to prevent incremental change to ‘Anywhere U.S.A.’ Therefore, the plan and zoning provide for careful review of all development with special emphasis on preserving the approaches to Middlebury. High-traffic generating uses, big-box retail or commercial strip development and franchises and stereotype architecture do not conform with this plan. Franchises of a small scale nature may be permitted on a conditional basis provided that they are low traffic generating and designed to conform to the character and scale of traditional historic buildings in Middlebury and Vermont.”
• Applications for new or expanded commercial or institutional projects located outside of this downtown area must demonstrate that there will not be an unmitigated, undue adverse impact on the cultural and economic vitality of the downtown.”
“Many businesses that might suffer from this new development are essential to the balance of economic diversity necessary for downtown health,” DeWind said. “If we allow our businesses that serve local needs to be undermined by the expansion of this shopping center and more strip development, we no longer have a healthy, functioning village, which is fragile already.”
Ripton resident Michelle Fay presented the DRB with a petition bearing the names of 1,072 people asking that the town reject the two store applications, in part due to the potential impacts on downtown stores like Main Street Stationary and Carol’s Hungry Mind Café.
Fay asked the DRB to require that the developers commission an economic impact study — done by a local firm — to determine potential affects of the Starbucks and Staples on local businesses.
Barbara Tomb, co-owner of Main Street Stationary, urged the DRB to take stock in the town plan as it evaluates the Starbucks and Staples applications.
“It’s like our Constitution,” she said of the town plan. “This is the time to stand up for what was written.”
Greg Tomb, also co-owner of Main Street Stationary, noted slim profit margins for many downtown business owners who don’t have the same financial supports as large corporate entities.
“There is no big brother looking over your shoulder helping to write checks,” Tomb said. “There are no deep pockets here.”
The DRB will give Myron Hunt Inc. time to present more evidence — including an economic impact study — before scheduling the next hearing on the two store applications.