BERLIN — Plans to cultivate “downtown Berlin” on property owned by the Berlin Mall cleared a key hurdle on Monday, as the Vermont Downtown Development Board conditionally approved a “new town center” that isn’t located in Chittenden County.
The, 11-1, vote wasn’t unanimous and wasn’t as decisive as it sounds. It was the product of a virtual roll call vote that featured more than a couple pregnant pauses, including one that was narrated in real time.
“With some hesitancy: ‘yes,’” said board member Greg Boulbol, whose day job involves serving as chairman of the state’s Natural Resources Board.
Despite varying degrees of reluctance expressed by Boulbol and other board members during a session that spanned 90 minutes the only “no” vote was cast by Jaime Lee, who represents the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) and the Preservation Trust of Vermont on the board.
Lee’s dissent capped a meeting that began with Kate McCarthy, sustainable communities program director for VNRC, urging the board to reject the application it tabled three weeks ago.
“We (VNRC) don’t feel the vision of the new town center is achievable as … drawn,” McCarthy said, suggesting the board avoid setting a “bad precedent” by approving an application it believes doesn’t meet required criteria.
McCarthy said that would be a mistake, notwithstanding VNRC’s support for housing that is an important component of Berlin’s new town center.
McCarthy’s was the only public comment, but her concerns were shared to varying degrees by some board members, who admitted they were troubled by a proposal that didn’t seem complete or, in some cases, possible.
Chip Sawyer, who represents the Vermont Planners association on the downtown board, was one of them.
Though Sawyer said he was enthusiastic about the potential incentives that accompany a new town center and the designation would “guide the kind of growth the state needs” in Berlin, he was apprehensive approving an application that felt premature.
“I’m wary about letting a community have the designation and the incentives that come with it, but not yet having done all the work,” he said.
Boulbol was another. Though his concern was that wetlands and storm water issues could trip up grand plans to create a downtown-like development on the 60-acre mall property.
“Are we permitting something that is just not attainable?” he asked at one point. “If so, maybe we should think twice about it.”
Board member Michael McDonough, a planning commissioner from Bennington, said he is confident regulatory processes like Act 250 would iron out those wrinkles, but he was struggling with a master plan for the mall property that didn’t pass the “eye test.” The product of a consultant-led process undertaken by Berlin’s planning commission and supported by the town’s select board worried the master plan was missing the downtown vibe.
“It checks a lot of boxes, but it doesn’t look like a new town center,” he said, adding: “It’s a new town center that still looks like a mall with what I would describe as ‘contemporary mall-site appendages.’”
For his part, Chairman Josh Hanford noted the Berlin Select Board had unanimously agreed to accept a list of proposed conditions designed to create a “walkable” downtown-like area near property owned by the mall, across the street from Central Vermont Medical Center and a wetland away from Berlin Elementary School.
Hanford, who is commissioner of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said it is notable that the first two projects — one under construction and the other in the process of lining up financing — involve creating more than 125 units of housing next door to the mall.
“That, in my mind it speaks volumes towards the potential,” he said.
Granting Berlin the new town center designation enjoyed by South Burlington and Colchester, would provide Berlin with the tools to re-imagine the mall property.
“If anything, the steps we’re taking are (addressing) everyone’s concerns that I have heard today, by supporting a limited, conditioned new town center application,” he said. “Without this, I don’t think anyone can leave here and say (we’ve) done … our job to help redevelop this area that exists.”
Even among skeptics, that was the prevailing view, though board members included a requirement the town return with a progress report in two years.
Several Berlin officials, including Town Administrator Vince Conti, Zoning Administrator Tom Badowski, and Karla Nuissl, chairwoman of the Planning Commission, vowed not to squander the opportunity they were being offered.
“The town has heard all the concerns and we don’t take those lightly,” Conti said, expressing a commitment to work with the state on a plan he expects will evolve.
“This is the beginning,” he said.
Cathy Davis, who represents the Vermont Association of Chamber Executives on the board, said she was pleased to support a new town center outside the Chittenden County area, while acknowledging the mall property is in many ways more complicated than the undeveloped field that was designated in Colchester.
“That is a positive aspect of this project,” she said.
Though the board agreed to require a progress report in two years, a decision about whether to renew the just-granted designation will be made at the four-year mark.