Home News and Features Three VCFA Buildings Have a Buyer; College Withdraws DRB Application

Three VCFA Buildings Have a Buyer; College Withdraws DRB Application

The Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Gary Library is one of three buildings being sold to 150 Main Street, LLC, a collective of six local women. Photo by Sharon Allen.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) has dropped two pieces of big news in the past week: a buyer has come forward for three of the college’s campus buildings, and after hearing from dozens of disgruntled neighbors, the college has withdrawn its application to the city of Montpelier for a “Campus Planned Unit Development.” The college is hosting a public meeting on March 9 for a community discussion about the sale of Crowley Center, Martin House, and Gary Library, three of the smaller buildings on campus.

Although announcement of the sale and withdrawing the application happened within a couple days of each other, VCFA President Leslie Ward said they are unrelated. 

“The college listened to neighbors who came to the [Planned Unit Development] hearings, and after hearing concerns from local residents that they would not be comfortable changing conditional uses to permitted uses, we withdrew the application,” Ward said in an email to The Bridge. 

Community, Wellness, and a Bath House

A collective of six local women, loosely known as “150 Main Street, LLC,” has contracted to buy the three campus buildings. They plan to use them for a health-and-wellness center, which may include a bath house, community event and performance space, and space for practitioners to meet with clients, among other uses, said Casey Ellison, ND, one of the buyers. 

Ellison said the group cares deeply about accessibility, with an intention to make alternative health care — something out of financial reach for many — accessible. By “accessible,” Ellison said she means that everyone in the community can afford it, and that all genders feel comfortable and safe in the space. Also important, she said, is making the space accessible to “populations who don’t usually get considered,” such as “BIPOC folks and other folks who are usually subjected to a

The organization 150 Main Street, LLC includes Ellison, her wife Twylla Lannes (a graphic designer who may open a juice shop in the new space), Claire Wheeler, Petra Rowan Rhines, Christina Andrle, and Wendy Halley.

“We’re hoping as many people as are interested will come [to the VCFA meeting on March 9],” Ellison said. “We’re going to describe all the things we’re interested in doing — this is a community focused project. We have no interest in pulling one over on everyone.”

Ward said 150 Main Street aligns with VCFA’s “commitment to continue enriching our campus and the broader community.”

“All proceeds from the sale will be reinvested in the VCFA community to provide more scholarships, increase program investments, and strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration between its programs and artists,” Ward said.

Both Ward and Ellison said they cannot disclose the price for the three buildings. Ellison said they are in a four-month due diligence process “to figure out if these buildings are going to work for us.” Ultimately, she said, “our deal isn’t actually done.” 

The Background

In June 2022, VCFA announced it would be moving its graduate arts residencies to Colorado College and selling all but one of its 11 campus buildings. The college would keep College Hall and the green, a widely used informal recreational space the college has kept open to the public for decades. But the rest of the buildings would go up for sale. College president Ward has said VCFA will keep its Vermont base, and administrative work will remain at College Hall in

The last residency held at the Montpelier campus finished on Feb. 11. 

“It is a huge change and not a popular one,” said a staff member who asked to remain anonymous. “There was no communication with anyone from the school [with] staff, faculty, students or even alumni before enacting this change. It was dropped like a bomb on all of us. I learned at a staff meeting literally hours before they sent the email to the students.”

Within a month of the announcement to move, VCFA’s visual arts students protested, peppering the campus with signs demanding the college keep its residencies in Vermont, creating a social media presence, and organizing a tuition withholding action if college administration didn’t start including them, staff, and faculty in the process. 

“This decision (to move to Colorado) was reached without the input of all affected stakeholders, including the current student body,” students wrote in a letter to Ward at the time. 

Since then, four program heads have left. A week ago, the VCFA jobs website page showed openings for four program directors. As of Feb. 19, the page listed openings for a director for the MFA in Visual Arts program, and a director for the MFA in Film program. A staff member who asked to remain anonymous said that some of those vacancies came because of frustration over the move out of state.

To those not in favor of moving residencies out of state, Ward responded in an email to The Bridge: “While I understand that some people in our community feel the college should remain owners of this beautiful and beloved campus, our first responsibility is to the mission of the college and serving our students in the best way possible. Our students spend less than three weeks a year on this campus, and yet their hard-earned tuition dollars pay for the upkeep of buildings they barely use, and in some cases never use. By relocating our residencies, we’re able to invest in our people and programs more than ever before, with increased student scholarships, concurrent residencies that will drive unprecedented interdisciplinary collaboration, and expanded professional development opportunities for alumnx.”

Dropping the Application

The application for a Campus Planned Unit Development has been in process for well over a year, but culminated recently with a public hearing that spanned two Development Review Board (DRB) meetings, and had been continued to a third date before VCFA notified the board it was dropping the matter. 

The application process had required a master plan, in which VCFA listed a host of potential changes to the property. Some of those included converting campus buildings to housing, adding angled parking around the green, creating a performance center, and more. 

Dozens of neighbors showed up to the DRB hearings, and over the past two months collectively submitted 283 pages of commentary, most of it focused on the college’s request to change some of its planned uses to “permitted use” rather than “conditional use.” 

Conditional use, the current zoning requirement in place for some but not all new uses on the campus, requires a public hearing if a new use is proposed. “Permitted use” eliminates public engagement and requires only the city zoning administrator’s approval. Most commenters objected to that change, but some also focused on fear of losing use of the green or of increased traffic. Boundary issues between the college and abutting properties were also mentioned. 

Of the 67 comments submitted, 56 expressed concern about the VCFA application, three were neutral or merely asked questions, and three were in support of the plan. One comment submitted by VCFA neighbors Alicia Dworsky and Danny Sagan took up 52 pages, and another from Rebecca R. Grayck (submitted “by and through her attorney David L. Grayck”) was 106 pages. 

At the Feb. 6 DRB hearing, Montpelier resident Peter Kelman said “I think this entire process is divisive and it’s byzantine. It’s almost arguing about how many angels are on the head of the pin. What we really need is dialogue.”

It appears as though VCFA and its current buyers are in agreement. 

“After careful and deliberate consideration of community feedback, VCFA respectfully requests that our campus development PUD application be withdrawn. The college and future owners will abide by the underlying zoning regulations and will utilize the conditional use permit process as required,” wrote Katie Gustafson, the VCFA vice president for finance and administration in a memo to the DRB.

Gustafson continued: “Although the college is withdrawing from the DRB process, our goal is not to end the conversations with the community about our future plans. To that end, we will be holding an open community meeting at VCFA on Thursday, March 9 at 7 p.m. with the team who plans to purchase three of our campus buildings to begin that dialogue and provide Montpelier residents with the concrete information they need to help them share our excitement for the future of the campus.”

Editor’s note: The Bridge is a tenant of VCFA at Stone Science Hall.

The Gary Library

If the sale goes through, the Gary Library may become a “multi-purpose vibrant community space,” according to Casey Ellison, one of the six women purchasing three buildings from VCFA. 

“It could include performing arts and music, a community meeting space, gallery space, event space, and most likely some kind of more intentional food space,” Ellison said.

But those who live and work on campus see the sale of the Gary Library as “a hugely tragic loss,” according to a VCFA staff member who spoke to The Bridge but asked not to be named for fear of losing their job. “Every single student I have talked to — every staff member, every faculty member — is devastated to lose the library.”

“It has so many resources for the students,” the person added, “a fabulous collection, big printers for the art and design programs … musicians go in to print their music, writers print their papers. It has a wonderful collection of thesis projects in there.”

Also part of the library experience has been the librarian’s pets, the person said, Frida the dog and Bowie the cat. Students went in for cuddles and de-stressing. Will the pets move into the library’s new site? It wasn’t clear, but the staff member pointed to it as one among a myriad of changes that are feeling painful to staff and students. 

College president Leslie Ward said “the archives and all materials relevant to our programs will be housed in College Hall. We remain committed to this campus, and as we’ve shared previously, we will retain ownership of College Hall and the green.”

Ellison acknowledged “the fact that the college is leaving is a sad thing, no matter how you slice it.” But, she added, “now we have this huge important space that could be vital for the community. Both things are true — losing the college is sad, and creating something new is exciting.”