by C.B. Hall
The mills of the gods grind slow, the saying goes, but they grind exceedingly fine. A civic committee began in the mid-1990s to investigate possible public acquisition of the so-called “Carr Lot,” also known as 1 Taylor Street, for redevelopment as a transit center. However, it was only last week that the City Council selected Burlington’s Redstone Commercial Group as its partner in implementing the project. Residents can look forward to the transformation of the 1.16-acre parcel into a transit center and community gateway by 2016, completing an incubation process more than two decades long, but what it will all look like still remains to be seen.
City Council reached its four-to-two decision for Redstone based on a unanimous recommendation by the city’s Carr Lot Design Committee. Mayor John Hollar, forgoing his personal preference for a competing proposal from Williston’s DEW Properties, voted for Redstone in order to prevent a tie. Redstone’s proposal appealed to decision-makers in large part because, rather than presenting a finished plan, it emphasized an interactive process with the community, with the eventual design coming out of that interchange.
“The focus of this proposal is not a building and a parking lot; the focus is placemaking,” Redstone’s 108-page proposal begins. The document calls the Carr Lot site a place where “a multi-modal transit center, a hotel, a bike path, a farmers’ market, river access…and future passenger rail access all come together.”
Redstone’s community-oriented approach means that the site plan could absorb a hundred visions and revisions. The 80-room, five-story hotel envisioned could also be a block of apartments or office space, the proposal states. However, in a public presentation March 11, Redstone representatives described the hotel, with its construction cost of $14.9 million, as the alternative about which they felt most excited. That presentation also discussed the office and residential options for the building. These would carry price tags of $4.7 and 7.5 million, respectively, but Redstone sees the hotel as the quickest means of generating the revenue to reimburse the city for its $1.7 million investment in the entire project.
Many aspects of the plan present challenges, the prospective hotel being a case in point: it would stand more or less in the 65-room Capitol Plaza Hotel’s backyard, a development some see as less than neighborly. Messages seeking reactions from Capitol Plaza General Manager Brian Cain went unanswered, but Jon Anderson, who with his wife runs Betsy’s Bed and Breakfast on East State Street and who has served on the Carr Lot Design Committee, told The Bridge that the new hotel’s impacts would create “dislocations” in the city’s lodging sector. “Those dislocations would fall disproportionately on the Capitol Plaza,” Anderson said.
The city’s possible need for a corner of the Capitol Plaza’s property for a tiny segment of the bike path that will traverse the Carr Lot may give the hotel’s owners, the Bashara family, some leverage as events unfold. It may also just lead them to stonewall. “If you want something from someone, you don’t poke them in the eye before beginning negotiations with them,” Anderson said.
The expectation is that a national chain would run the hotel—something that could rankle a community that rejected a bid by McDonald’s to install a franchise on State Street some years ago.
When interviewed for this article, Redstone Development Manager Erik Hoekstra countered that businesspeople like hotels “with national affiliations”—chain hotels—because of their point programs for loyal customers. Absent that, the patronage goes elsewhere, he said.
He reported that Redstone had talked with the Basharas: “We’ve heard their concerns…[The issue] deserves a lot more discussion.” He said the prospective hotel is “still our preferred option,” but that “we have more work to do to verify that it will be as successful as we think it will be.” He stressed repeatedly that the city had chosen Redstone as a partner, rather than choosing Redstone’s plans, elements of which the company is prepared to jettison as called for.
Fitting a hotel, a farmers’ market, a transit center, a kayak landing, a bike path, some greenery and that most voracious of space-eaters, a parking lot, onto the parcel is going to require the figurative shoehorn, a point not lost on Capital City Farmers Market President Lila Bennett, who owns West Glover’s Tangletown Farm. “It’s going to be hard to fit everything, but it’s not impossible,” she told The Bridge. “The market is excited about the possibilities on the Carr Lot and we are working hard with the city and the developer to see how to make that location the permanent home for the market.”
“We are keeping all the doors open,” she said, in the context of the market’s search for a permanent home in downtown Montpelier.
The market, she stated, hosts about 50 vendors at a time, all of whom need vehicle access to their booths and some of whom occupy multiple booths. The Redstone design, as it stands, projects 45 booths in three rows of 15, with an access lane about 19 feet wide between two facing rows and a lane ten feet wide behind the third row—dimensions that seem to bode chaos when vendors are setting up. The entire market area is less than half the size of the lot the vendors currently fill on State Street, just across the railroad tracks. Limiting participation to fit fewer than the needed number of booths is “not something we’re interesting in doing,” Bennett said.
In Redstone’s March 11 presentation, Hoekstra said that, if the farmers’ market did not move to the site, the space tentatively reserved for it in Redstone’s design could be repurposed for other outdoor events.
Taylor Street itself presents another conundrum. The Redstone plan has buses looping through a jughandle loop at the transit center, exiting to or arriving from Memorial Drive via the Taylor Street Bridge. This could remove the need for buses to negotiate traffic on State and Main streets, a plus for intercity carriers like Greyhound especially; but, as an attendee at the March 11 meeting pointed out, two-way bus traffic on the bridge may present obstacles. The structure’s roadway measures about 19 feet across when snow is plowed up against one side. The widest buses are eight and a half feet wide. Hoekstra told The Bridge that the city, having spoken with affected providers, felt the current bridge would work, but he added that “we may need to look at some new sort of signalization, where two vehicles would not be crossing at the same time.”
The site borders the state-owned Washington County Railroad’s right-of-way, making passenger rail service a natural consideration for a transit center conspicuously described as “multi-modal.” Questions at the March 11 presentation addressed the possibility, as did Redstone’s proposal, but the Vermont Agency of Transportation hasn’t “any service plans for the line at this time,” according to Public Outreach Manager Erik Filkorn.
Another member of the March 11 audience asked if, with all this improvement to transit facilities, car travel into Montpelier would drop, hence removing some of the need perceived for parking at the Carr lot site. Had Redstone considered that? “We have factored that in,” Redstone principal Larry Williams affirmed, but he conceded that “as much as they like to talk about it, people don’t necessarily really get out of their cars.” Redstone, he said, used minimal coefficients, normally employed for high-density urban environments, to compute the number of parking spaces needed.
The hotel would have valet parking in order to keep the parking operations as orderly as possible, but would require using the state-owned parking lot on the other side of Taylor Street, or some other alternative parking location, Hoekstra stated in his interview. Redstone’s plans call for only 53 public parking spaces on the hotel site.
With the state reportedly short 600 parking spaces for its needs and with a hotel possibly rising on the Carr Lot, the uncertainties over where to stick the cars loom large. If one thing is certain, however, it’s that the new facility will mean better amenities for bus travelers, as well as bus drivers. At the Shaw’s bus transfer point on Main Street, rush-hour traffic jams, out of proportion for a city of 8000, may diminish when the transfer point moves to Taylor Street and a few more motorists decide to give the bus a try.
“I’m looking forward to it,” commented Green Mountain Transit Agency driver Brian Partlow recently, during some down time at the transfer point. “A lot of times, people jump on and I’m going to Northfield and they’re going to Barre.” Separating buses among clearly marked slots at the transit center, he said, would make bus travel in Montpelier “a little less confusing.”
Before such a laudable solution becomes reality, however, the mills of the gods have some grinding to do.