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Mall Concept Plans To Be Unveiled

23 Feb 2016, Posted by admin in Press Release

See article in Times Argus
February 23, 2016

Kohl’s is still days away from opening its doors, but owners of the Berlin Mall have already given considerable thought to what comes next.

For the moment, they aren’t saying much, but that will change Wednesday night when conceptual plans for the mall property — all 65 acres — are unveiled at the front end of a special Planning Commission meeting set for 6 p.m. at Berlin Elementary School.

Those familiar with the plans say folks who thought the freestanding, 55,000-square-foot Kohl’s department store was the final piece of the mall puzzle thought wrong because Berlin Mall LLC has a vision that extends well beyond the currently developed 22-acre campus.

So say town officials who have gotten a peek at the plans and the Cabot consultant who has been working on them.

Development consultant Michael Rushman said the conceptual plans involve a less “mall-centric” approach to the property owned by his client and were developed as something of a response to the planning commission’s comprehensive rewrite of the town’s zoning and subdivision regulations.

The commission’s work, which started nearly a year ago, will be the subject of its own public discussion Wednesday night. If all goes well, the final product of that ongoing process will be ready in time to present to voters in November.

The mall and several other local developers have been closely following the commission’s work, and, as the panel readies to review a second draft of a document that calls for wholesale changes to the town’s zoning regulations, Rushman said he hopes to provide members with some food for thought.

Though he wasn’t willing to discuss specifics, Rushman said the mall’s informal proposal could provide fresh fuel for what has been an on-again-off-again discussion involving a special state designation for the strategically located area that includes the mall property.

It wouldn’t be the first time the town has flirted with the concept of applying for a state-designated “new town center” — an option for communities, like Berlin, that don’t have historic downtowns, but are interested in developing something akin to them. Past conversations involving the new town center designation have fizzled, in part because there wasn’t a cohesive plan to anchor the application.

The mall’s conceptual plans could change that and the law that allows for the creation of new town centers offers a hint at what owners of the shopping complex might have in mind.

“…‘New town center’ means the area planned for or developing as a community’s central business district, composed of compact, pedestrian-friendly, multi-story and mixed-use development that is characteristic of a traditional downtown, supported by planned or existing urban infrastructure, including curbed streets with sidewalks and on-street parking, stormwater treatment, sanitary sewers and public water supply.”

It isn’t the first time the mall has pushed the town center concept. Although the property changed hands in 2010, the mall’s previous owners prepared a 2004 study that was referenced at length in the town plan.

Among other things the study contemplated creating a pedestrian-friendly connection between the Central Vermont Medical Center on Fisher Road and Berlin Elementary School on Paine Turnpike, using the mall property that is located between them.

The section of the town plan dealing with the study says, “… The goals of this district are to create an economically viable core with a mixture of retail, office, residential, and service uses, built on a small-scale that is conducive to pedestrian activity,” parroting the content of the 12-year-old mall study.

“… This will result in an aesthetically pleasing public realm of streets and sidewalks framed by building facades, enhanced by street trees, plazas, parks, natural and recreational areas and other public amenities,” the town plan adds.

It is unclear how liberally the mall’s current owners have borrowed from the earlier plan, but with the cash registers ready to begin ringing at Kohl’s next week, they are ready to start talking about the future.