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Chamber Notes: Imagining a New Town Center

29 Feb 2016, Posted by admin in Press Release

See article in Times Argus
February 29, 2016

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the Berlin Planning Commission meeting. At that session, Ken Simon, vice president of Heidenberg Properties Group, the owner of the Berlin Mall, introduced a presentation by Michael Rushman from Land Strategies. And what a presentation it was.

Rushman led an hourlong conversation centered on a conceptual plan of future development at the Berlin Mall. In essence, the concept calls for the creation of a downtown district for Berlin with the centerpiece being the look and feel of a New England town center complete with retail shopping, restaurants, parks, trails, a residential component, commercial establishments, a hotel and, of course, a town green. The project even anticipates turning open space into a garden center or nursery and a managed woodland area. The developers are hoping to “transform Berlin Mall Road into a traditional ‘Main Street.’”

The proposed 480,750-square-foot development calls for a 75,000-square-foot hotel; freestanding retail at 49,000 square feet; Main Street mixed use of 245,000 square feet; senior housing at 63,000 square feet; townhouses at 36,750 square feet; and the nursery having 11,500 square feet. There will also be 6.4 acres of open space accessible to the public.

Could it really happen? Vermont is notorious for casting a wary eye on developments that could dramatically alter the landscape and reconfigure the pristine nature of the countryside. Is this just another dream that will be unfulfilled, or will the dream become a reality? We are a long way from finding out. The reality is that the approval process is a long one and original drawings and representations often do not look like finished projects. On first glance, however, the project certainly does appear to be compatible with the existing use at the Berlin Mall.

The first step in this process is for the site to be awarded a “New Town Center Designation” by the state. Such a designation is reserved for those municipalities that do not have what is considered to be a “traditional” downtown. As only a municipality can request such a designation, it will be up to Berlin to make the request of the state. The developers have already agreed to provide the staff to work on the application so as not to draw resources away from the town. Berlin would then have to add the appropriate language to the Town Plan.

Once the application is submitted, there is the necessary review conducted by the state, which includes additional public input. Upon receiving the designation, the project will likely move forward seeking the usual permits and approvals.

The presentation can be viewed on the Berlin Planning Commission website, http://www.berlinvt.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Conceptual-Redeveloment-of-the-Berlin-mall.pdf.

It is an interesting proposal that is in the very early stages. An investment of this type clearly shows that central Vermont has a lot to offer and that developers are obviously sitting up and taking notice. That is certainly welcomed news.

William Moore is executive director of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.