Stefan Hard / Staff File Photo Currently used only for state employee parking, the Carr Lot in Montpelier is the location for a future development as a transit center and both residential and commercial space.
MONTPELIER — The City Council chose Redstone to be its partner in a long-envisioned redevelopment project at the Carr Lot, but not before a red flag was raised Wednesday over the city’s assistant public works director having communicated with the competing developer, DEW Properties LLC.
Larry Williams, the principal for Burlington-based Redstone, during his firm’s 30-minute allotment before the council preceding the vote, voiced concern over a communication he said had gone to DEW, and which his firm was made aware of earlier Wednesday but had not had time to respond to. Williams said he was concerned the information did “not accurately reflect our proposal as compared to DEW’s.”
City Manager William Fraser said the department’s second in command, Tom McArdle, had “provided some comments to one of the developers and talked to them and not the other one” but had not been asked to weigh in on the decision. In the interest of public disclosure, Fraser said he had sent the comments to both developers after learning about the information.
“The city had not asked for that kind of review,” he said.
McArdle, in addition to preparing notes on the two proposals, also “discussed his opinions and shared his notes with representatives of DEW’s development team,” Fraser said. “He also verbally expressed a preference (for) the DEW proposal. It seems clear to me that some of those notes are reflected in correspondence from DEW’s representatives to the city.”
Fraser stressed, “This review was not requested by me or management staff, nor did we know it was happening. I had been asked earlier if (the Department of Public Works) had reviewed or commented on these proposals and I said no, unknowingly in error.”
Fraser said he had no opinion on which developer should be chosen and distanced the city administration from the action, saying, “Any opinion expressed by this person or any other staff person does not represent the city.” He added, “It was inappropriate for a staff member to meet with one team and not the other and to share information without internal review first.”
He said McArdle came forward about what happened, realizing he “had made a mistake.”
“I apologize for this occurrence,” said Fraser by email. “We are following up on this matter internally.”
In the rough notes that McArdle wrote and shared with DEW, he said its plans are in better alignment with the capital district master plan and noted that the DEW proposal was better integrated to adjoining property owners, saying, “Redstone appears to see itself as more of an island.”
“DEW is not so narrowly focused on a single parcel recognizing it can’t be a sense of its own and collaborate is more just a word found about 20 times in the Redstone proposal,” McArdle went on. “DEW sees that with partnerships, Bashara could buy-in to bike path impacts where prop. acquisition will be necessary providing a critical link to State St., (Capitol) Plaza and off-site parking. A neat, orderly and convenient connection to downtown — restaurants, shops, etc.”
The Bashara family owns the nearby Capitol Plaza Hotel and Conference Center.
McArdle’s notes then break down the two proposals, listing where each falls, stating, “DEW: building information modeling and integrated process — terrific tools. Redstone: not that far along or sophisticated.”
In another instance, he writes, “DEW: plan for mix of transportation modes i.e. ‘multi-modal.’ Redstone: excludes car and minimizes importance seems unrealistic in rural small town VT with harsh climate.”
During Redstone’s presentation, in addition to expressing concerns over McArdle’s notes, the developer touched on the already controversial idea of a hotel at the site.
“We recognize that we need to prove that we can do a project like that without being detrimental to the businesses that are in town, and we think we can do that if the city wants to pursue that,” Williams said.
The council’s vote was to have the city enter into negotiations with Redstone as the city’s partner in the redevelopment of 1 Taylor St.
Mayor John Hollar said of the hotel possibility that he was concerned about the fact that the Basharas “own a piece of property that would be pivotal” in creating the bike path that needs to cross the Taylor Street site. “It is probably fair to assume they would not sell” for the bike path if a hotel is planned, he said.
To that, Williams said Redstone “did not know that the right of way for the bike path” was not yet in hand. “If the Basharas have that leverage and are going to use it, that would have to be a factor in whether a hotel is pursued or not.”
The mayor does not usually vote on City Council matters, unless his vote is needed to break a tie on the six-member body.
But in what Hollar said was the toughest decision he’s confronted as mayor, he did vote, and not with his heart, but to join the majority in the interests of not holding up the project.
After Dona Bate and Thierry Guerlain both voted for DEW and Justin Turcotte, Jessica Edgerly Walsh and Anne Watson voted in favor of Redstone, the mayor reiterated what he had said at the outset of the discussion Wednesday night: He did not want to create a tie — in this instance by voting for his preferred partner, DEW. That would have risked stymying the redevelopment project that has been on the city’s drawing board for longer than a decade.
Councilor Tom Golonka had earlier recused himself from the selection process because his wife is a member of the Bashara family. That left only six potential voters.
Hollar explained his spot Thursday, saying that state law requires a majority of the board to vote in the affirmative, so a 3-2 vote of a six-member body would not constitute a majority. “If I had not voted, it would have meant that the motion would have died,” he said.
Montpelier bought the former industrial site, which has had some environmental remediation work performed, earlier this year. The city has a total of $1.7 million invested in the site and project, for which it has two sizable federal grants. The plan is for a public-private project that will house a multimodal transit center and welcome center on the first floor and several upper levels of space that could hold apartments, condos, offices or a hotel, depending on what the council and its new development partner decide.
Before the votes were cast, new council member Bate said to the mayor, “I’m disappointed that you’re not voting.”
Hollar reiterated his feelings on the situation, saying, “If I vote to create a tie, it leaves us without any option to move forward in a clear manner. ... Sometimes it’s better to decide and be wrong than not to decide.”
Golonka, before taking a seat in the audience, asked how long his recusal would continue.
“I’d like to have some input, some clarification,” he said. “... I think residents of District 1 deserve my full activity and questioning.”
Bate said the issue before the council this week was only to pick a partner, not a design. “If indeed a hotel is on the table (in the future), then that’s a conflict,” she said.
At the start of Wednesday night’s discussion, Don Marsh, an engineer and a member of the Carr Lot Design Review Committee, presented the panel’s report and recommendation of Redstone.
Don Wells, president of DEW, was up next and began by saying, “I’ve never, ever protested anything or asked for anything to be changed. ... (But) when the news hit that we were not selected (by the committee), I got tons of phone calls and a lot of public outcry that we needed to protest this or ask for reconsideration.”
“For 39 years, I’ve never been in a position where our responsiveness to (a request for proposals) was not the basis of the award,” said Wells. “It’s not the RFP that’s flawed, it’s the selection criteria.”
He expressed concern over the use of an RFP review sheet and scores given to each developer by committee members.
“We believe the vote should be thrown out,” Wells said, referring to the Carr Lot committee’s recommendation of Redstone.
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