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VCFA Plans to Sell Campus Buildings

By Lauren Milideo

As Montpelier residents learned recently of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ plan to sell most of its buildings, many wonder what will become of the campus on Seminary Hill. Even as the school pursues a plan to move its graduate arts residency programs to Colorado College, plans for the future of the buildings have not yet materialized. Upcoming community meetings will provide opportunities for neighbors to offer ideas.

The decision to sell the buildings is practical, because of VCFA’s low-residency model, said College President Leslie Ward. The college hosts students for intensive on-campus seven-to-10-day “residencies” each semester, during which, Ward explained, students attend lectures, workshops, performances, and other activities, and plan the semester’s work with an advisor. Students return to their communities to complete the semester’s artistic pursuits while maintaining contact with faculty. 

“Vermont College of Fine Arts is on a fully residential campus,” said Ward. The campus has dormitories and other buildings – 11 total. “And we have a campus that we don’t fully utilize,” Ward noted. She said, “(O)ur campus only has students here three months out of the year,” later adding, “that is not an efficient use of your resources.”

Keeping the Green

The campus has had several identities since a seminary began there in the 19th century, per VCFA’s website. The college formed in 2008 and purchased the campus, but even when students are present, the campus does not fit VCFA’s needs, said Ward. Currently, each program’s residencies operate sequentially, but ideally, residencies would gather faculty and students from all these programs for an interdisciplinary experience, Ward said. But that would mean bringing about 600 people to a campus that can only accommodate about 250, she said. 

“So we both want to bring our students together so that there can be cross-disciplinary learning and inspiration and collaboration,” Ward said, “and we have a campus we use three months out of the year.” The school sought other locations, selecting Colorado College, where residencies will begin in summer 2023.

Ward stressed VCFA is not eliminating its graduate arts programs, and will maintain its identity and “Vermont DNA.” And, she said, one building will remain in VCFA’s possession – College Hall, housing its administrative offices – and the adjoining College Green.

“We intend to continue to own the green, to maintain it,” Ward said. “It is a beautiful resource for the town and for this neighborhood. It enhances the value of all of the buildings.”

Community Input

The potential uses for those buildings will be the subject of upcoming community meetings, the first of which was scheduled for June 20, where Montpelier residents can offer ideas. College Board of Trustees member Heidi Mohlman Tringe noted “as a board member I took very seriously the role that I have, being a resident of Montpelier and someone who grew up in this community.” 

Tringe acknowledged that many in Montpelier, including businesses that benefited from the influx of visitors during residencies, may find the sale upsetting. “(C)hange is hard, and it can be scary,” Tringe said, “but it can also be exciting and present a lot of opportunities, and that’s really what I see. I see opportunity in this.”

Good Samaritan Considered It

In fact, another Montpelier resident also saw an opportunity in the campus on Seminary Hill. Good Samaritan Haven Executive Director Rick DeAngelis said in 2020, he and colleagues spent about three months – and $20,000 – studying the possibility of creating housing in Bishop-Hatch Hall for people experiencing homelessness. This included meeting with the board and creating a funding proposal. But, DeAngelis said, several factors ultimately led Good Samaritan Haven elsewhere.

First, timing was a problem. “They weren’t 100% ready to do a deal,” DeAngelis said. “And that’s fine — it was a big decision. And we had some really intense pressures around timing,” he added. “That was in early COVID, and a lot of the funding that we were competing for was time-sensitive.” 

Another complication was permitting and zoning, DeAngelis noted. Good Samaritan Haven learned “we would have had to get a conditional use permit, which to us felt crazy, I have to say,” because the building is a dormitory, and Good Samaritan Haven’s housing plan seemed similar. But Good Samaritan Haven is a nonprofit serving individuals experiencing homelessness, whereas VCFA is an educational institution. 

“We were considered a new use,” said DeAngelis, “which I never really appreciated or felt made any sense, but it was what it was.”

With these complications, DeAngelis said, “quite frankly our funders said, you know, there was no way you’re going to pull this together in time. And so we just pulled the plug days before we were going to make a public announcement about the project, and it just really broke my heart, I have to say.”

Ultimately, Good Samaritan Haven selected the Twin City Motel property on the Barre-Montpelier Road as its new housing and service hub, and the project is nearly complete, DeAngelis said.

Concrete Construction

DeAngelis pointed out another potential challenge with Bishop Hatch Hall — its concrete construction, noting “it takes a lot of work to move a wall there.”

DeAngelis said, “it’s going to be interesting to see where this goes. I’m sure somebody will make it work, but you do have some additional complication and cost” because of the building’s nature. “There’s no bathrooms in the rooms … at least at Bishop-Hatch Hall, they’re congregate bathrooms. There’s no kitchen facilities. It’s not like it’s a super easy rehab where you just go in there and you tweak it a little and you’re ready to go. There’s no fire sprinklers, at least at Bishop-Hatch Hall. These are not insignificant things.” 

The buildings may not provide a quick fix for Montpelier’s affordable housing crisis. DeAngelis noted that Good Samaritan Haven had not planned major changes — just a few added bathrooms and a communal kitchen or two. Overall, DeAngelis said, “We were pretty much going to work with the dorm layout, but even still it got expensive very fast. I don’t mean to be dissing their project at all. I think it’s a beautiful property and opportunity.”

Housing in Campus Buildings?

Lack of housing in Montpelier also came to mind for Tringe when considering opportunities in the buildings. “I know, and we all know, Vermont and Montpelier have a real housing crisis,” she said. 

Ward noted, “We know that property is at a premium right now, and we are looking to be responsible stewards for this community, to put these buildings to their best use, and at the same time, to pair our economic model and be able to invest in our people and our programs, instead of maintain a campus that we only use for a quarter of the year.”

The college is working with Burlington real estate development consulting firm White and Burke, Ward said, and the buildings will likely be sold individually. Several organizations lease space there, Ward noted, and their leases will be honored. She said there are no current purchase offers on the buildings. 

Said Tringe, “Certainly, for me, the foremost opportunity is in that housing space, whether it’s apartments or condos or housing for seniors, or housing for healthcare workers. There’s a dearth of housing in our state and in our town, and that’s something that I think will certainly be explored further.”

“I’d love to see some affordable housing,” said DeAngelis, who lives nearby.

“Education, housing, if there are other uses, terrific,” Ward said of the buildings’ potential uses. “But it’s really, to me, a marriage of what is the building best suited for and what are the community’s needs? And when those two things come together, you have the best match.”