Gym plan raises traffic concerns
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | October 18,2013
This artist rendition shows a proposed 11,400-square-foot gym in Middlebury.
MIDDLEBURY — A proposal to build a new municipal gym in the recreation park adjoining Mary Hogan Elementary School was met with skepticism during a presentation at Wednesday night’s School Board meeting.
School Board members expressed serious reservations about building the multipurpose gym at the recreation park which already has parking and traffic issues.
During the meeting, members of the Select Board told members of the School Board that they expect to put the $6.5 million bond for the gym and town office project on the town meeting ballot in March. Originally the Select Board had considered a December vote.
This was the first formal presentation — complete with blueprints and artist renditions of the 11,400-square-foot gym — made by the Select Board and Bread Loaf Corp. to the School Board.
Although there was some discussion by School Board members on the design and function of the gym, most questions and comments were directed at the consequences of putting another facility in the recreation park that is already heavily used.
“I can’t understand how the circulation improvements for parking and access aren’t part of the initial phase of this project,” said School Board member Jennifer Bleich.
Bread Loaf’s plans include a drop-off rotary in front of the gym entrance that company representatives and town officials said would improve traffic flow. The Middlebury design and construction company representatives also stressed that the plans are only conceptual.
But adding additional parking and traffic circulation improvements would be left for a later date. The gym is the first phase of a multi-phase project that could include an indoor turf field.
The cost of adding 45 parking spaces and making traffic improvements as part of the first phase is estimated to add another $350,000 to the project.
Select Board Chairman Dean George said $6.5 million is the maximum the Select Board felt it could ask of voters, especially with a new town budget on the horizon.
But School Board member Lorraine Morse said the traffic and parking improvements need to be part of the first phase of the project.
Morse also asked whether the Select Board thought the School Board should help foot the bill for traffic improvements.
George said that’s something that needs to be addressed and ideally “we would participate together.”
Although George didn’t dispute that traffic and parking is an issue at the recreation park, he said the site is currently capable of handling additional traffic.
But School Board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman said “there’s no logic” to the argument that the gym’s impact wouldn’t require changes to the parking and traffic flow, especially during the construction phase.
As far as the gym alone is concerned, Duquette-Hoffman said “it’s a really neat idea.”
Chris Huston, a Bread Loaf representative, attempted to allay any concerns during the construction phase saying the company “is quite accustomed to working on active school sites and managing safety.”
School Board members also raised questions about plans to set aside space for teenagers and senior citizens and whether program fees would have to be raised to support the new gym.
As far as fees go, George said he hoped “the operating costs would be less” for the new facility.
Middlebury College would pick up $4.5 million of the $6.5 million cost for a new town office and gym with the town offices built at a nearby site owned by the college. The town office and gym are estimated to cost $3.25 million each. The deal is structured with the college repaying the town $4.5 million of the bond.
In return, the town would deed the existing town office and adjoining municipal gym property to the college. The college would also pay an estimated $1 million to raze the old town office and gym and turn the property into a park and gateway to the campus.
George stressed that it was critical for the School Board to reach a decision as soon as possible.
“If for some reason, they (the School Board) chose not to (grant a) permit to build the facility there, we need to consider what our next step would be as to where we might build that facility,” George said.
“So I’m hoping we don’t postpone that too long in the future,” he said, “because our resources, as are yours, are very precious and we don’t want to waste them on something that can’t happen.”
But School Board Chairwoman Ruth Hardy made it equally clear the School Board would not be rushed into a decision.
“While I hear your request that we act on the sooner side, I think that until there is more information particularly about the concerns we have with traffic flow and parking as well as other problematic issues, we’re not going to make a decision anytime soon,” Hardy said.