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‘Downtown’ Transformation Proposed for Berlin Mall

26 Feb 2016, Posted by admin in Press Release

See article in Times Argus
February 26, 2016

Imagine walking out the main entrance of the Berlin Mall, standing in a one-acre park and staring at a row of five-story buildings instead of a sea of predictably striped asphalt.

It might sound like a stretch, but owners of the mall are pitching a plan that would bring a “classic downtown feel” to their suburban shopping complex — one they say could conceivably transform the mall’s access road into Berlin’s equivalent of Main Street.

This one has a little bit of everything, from 5.5 acres of recreation trails in the wooded area on the backside of the mall’s existing parking lot to a new, five-story hotel near its entrance off Route 62. There would be affordable housing, market-rate apartments and several multistory retail mixed-use buildings, including a row of them that would face a new-look mall, creating a defined two-lane street reminiscent of a traditional downtown.

“It’s going to feel like riding down Main Street in Barre or riding down Main Street in Montpelier,” Cabot consultant Michael Rushman told planning commissioners and several interested residents during this week’s unveiling of an “illustrative” plan for the mall’s 65-acre property.

Rushman, who was retained by Berlin Mall LLC last summer, described the plan as “a jumping-off point” for a broader discussion he hopes will end with the town applying for a special state designation available to communities that don’t have traditional downtowns, but would like to create something akin to them.

“We’re not coming in tonight asking approval for anything other than, let’s start this process of trying to get a ‘new town center’ designation,” he said.

According to Rushman, obtaining this type of designation, like those granted to Colchester and South Burlington, would allow for an added measure of predictability in the state permitting process and make it easier to attract outside investors.

“It would be a huge help to moving this forward,” he said of a vision that was crafted with the town plan and an ongoing rewrite of local zoning regulations in mind.

“We’re not coming in and asking for more than the zoning calls for,” Rushman said. “We’re not asking for taller buildings, or weird uses. We tried to figure out how to accomplish our understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish with the town center district.”

Berlin’s “town center district” is a product of local zoning, and Rushman said the “new town center designation” could go a long way toward its long-stated desire to create a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly area of concentrated mixed-use development.

By pairing the mall property with neighboring land owned by Central Vermont Medical Center and a largely undeveloped parcel off Paine Turnpike owned by developers Wayne Lamberton and Randy LaGue, Rushman said the combined acreage of the properties — roughly 120 acres — is within the 125-acre maximum allowed by the state for new town centers.

Though Rushman said he couldn’t speak for the other property owners, he said the mall is keenly interested in the special designation and prepared to provide the town with any staff assistance it would need navigating the review process. There is a bit of self-interest involved because, Rushman conceded, it is “a time of upheaval for malls.”

“Malls are having to reinvent themselves all over the United States,” he said.

That is already happening in Burlington and South Burlington, and with a new Kohl’s department store set to open next week on the Berlin Mall campus, Ken Simon and fellow owners asked Rushman to look to the future.

Simon told planning commissioners he and his partners were sold on a vision that contemplates taking some of the “mall” out of the Berlin Mall and “thinking out of the box” with respect to future development and redevelopment.

“We bought into it,” Simon said. “I hope you buy into it, too.”

According to Rushman, “it” won’t happen overnight and some of “it” might never happen at all, but the goal is to transform the mall property into a destination that isn’t all about shopping. The concept is to create a place where people live, work and play in addition to shopping. It’s why the plans call for creating a one-acre park complete with a sizeable playground in front of the mall’s main entrance. In addition to providing a venue for outdoor events and dining, the playground is a nod to toddlers and pre-teens and an acknowledgement that it is a public amenity nearby historic downtowns simply can’t offer.

“It’s central, civic space that Barre and Montpelier can’t create or shoehorn into their downtowns,” he said, suggesting there are other attributes of those central business districts that are worth replicating.

One of them is their look and without getting into nearly 500,000 square feet of new construction contemplated in the plan, Rushman said steps could be taken to alter the look of the near 30 year old mall.

“It’s big, but not necessarily beautiful,” Rushman said. “It’s dated, it’s monolithic and it’s a little bit depressing.”

Reworking the façade by varying color schemes and building materials and adding outdoor signage for indoor businesses would be a smart down payment on a downtown concept, according to Rushman.

“Rather than this thing reading as a quarter-mile long wall, it starts to read much more like a street front on Main Street,” he said, suggesting additional entrances — functional, not just for emergencies — have also been suggested.

“The idea is to make that wall as permeable as possible,” he said.

Another comparatively low-cost suggestion involves the creation of a recreational trail network in the 5.5-acre wooded land that runs along the perimeter of a portion of the parking lot. Future plans call for the construction of a 11,500-square-foot garden center and nursery in that area, as well as a 63,000 square feet of affordable senior housing and a series of three-story townhouses.
Rushman suggested Downstreet Housing and Community Development could be a potential future partner with respect to the affordable housing project.

Other future construction projects include the row of five-story mixed-use buildings that would be built facing the mall on a portion of the current parking lot. Those buildings would complete the Main Street, housing ground-floor retail establishments with professional offices and market-rate apartments on the upper floors.

The plans call for extending the concept out the access road to Route 62. Four freestanding two-story retail buildings are proposed along that portion of the road; three on one side and one on the other, and a five-story hotel is shown near the signalized intersection of the limited access highway. Rushman described the mall property as a key “building block” for a new town center — one that could seamlessly be connected to neighboring properties as part of a broader concept.
If planning commissioners had issues with the proposal they didn’t voice them and Town Administrator Dana Hadley said he would bring the mall’s request to the Select Board for its consideration in coming weeks.