by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — A new housing development planned for an area behind what locals know as the former New England Culinary Institute headquarters — the big grey building at 250 Main St. — has generated high interest.
A preliminary ‘sketch plan’ presentation was held June 19 before the Development Review Board, and lively feedback prompted project planners to go back to the drawing board pending soil testing by an engineer.
According to the zoning permit application filed May 29, the project will have a new planned unit development with 24 housing units contained in two single, and 11 duplex housing structures. Areas to be ‘improved’ include new roads and bioretention areas to address drainage issues.
Some forested areas behind the existing buildings would be removed to allow for a proposed road, bioretention areas and new structures. Historic buildings on the site will remain. Roberta Harrold, who lives near the site, said the existing building went up in 1920 to serve as a home for “friendless children” — an orphanage.
The neighborhood is zoned medium density residential and is not in the design control district.
Several neighbors attended the Development Review Board’s sketch plan hearing to air concerns. Many comments ranged from skepticism to distress over the idea — but one neighbor sang its praises. Cal McCollum said he applauded 250 Main St. owner Jeff Nick’s efforts to build the much needed housing. The overarching lament was losing a wooded area to be replaced by housing units — and the possible impact on wildlife habitat as well as character of the neighborhood. Also of concern was increased traffic, stormwater runoff and vegetation removal.
The basic tenor of the hearing was civil and displayed a willingness for all sides to listen to one another, but a couple of issues flared up.
“Your regs (regulations) require the applicants tell us what the building is going to look like, the materials and the basic design,” said Kim Cheney, an abutting landowner and also vice chair of the Montpelier Planning Commission. “All I see is a bunch of boxes on a flat piece of paper and that is not what the ‘regs’ require as far as I can tell. It is very hard to comment on this.”
As of that hearing, building footprints, driveways and bioretention walls had been drawn up, but the buildings themselves had not been visually rendered into three dimensional drawings. Cheney also said he believed there could be as many as 250 people moving into the proposed units causing a spike in the neighborhood’s population. But property owner Jeff Nick shot down that notion right away.
“If I may clear up some questions that were raised. I can assure everybody in the neighborhood that none of these units will have 10 people,” Nick said. “I mean, two and three bedroom units and 1,200 up to 1,700 square feet, at the most.” And as for the look and design of the buildings, Nick said that the architect is well known and would do a good job. “I think Black River Designs, you know their work, do a very fine job designing properties such as this so it will look very nice.”
Cheney, an attorney, also said he is representing David Putter, who is also an attorney and abutting landowner.
On June 8, Putter and Cheney submitted the following filing: “Mr. Putter owns title to the property abutting the property which is the subject of this application. He can demonstrate a physical and environmental impact on his property under the conditional use and other criteria to be reviewed. He alleges that if the application is confirmed, it will not be in accord with the policies, purposes and/or terms of the plan and the bylaw of the City of Montpelier.”
According to Nick, the hearing gave him good insight and he will gather the information necessary to begin to figure out “how many units are appropriate” for the site. It is too early to determine what the cost would be to a consumer, since plans have not been finalized, but “the site, with the views we have, commands a more upscale project,” he said. His customer would likely be someone who is downsizing — perhaps “empty nesters.” Units would be owner-occupied units, such as a condominium-type project with single stand-alone cottages, duplexes and perhaps even a fourplex, Nick said.
The developers have been meeting with a local “downsizing” group for input on what features these units would have, such as how many garages and general design.
According to Black River Designs Architect Jay Ancel, in a brief in person interview with The Bridge Aug. 15, the whole concept is in keeping with the Montpelier Planning Commission and City Council’s mission to create more housing in Montpelier. This project would be in keeping with creating greater density within city bounds, a strategy known as “infill” development. This way people who live in Montpelier can walk or bike to work and contribute to the goal of attaining net zero energy by 2030.
Montpelier hosted a big Net Zero design competition and Ancel is one of the winning architects from “Team Bridges.”
Ancel said he and Nick are taking a pause for geotechnical soil testing. Further, he and Nick plan to put their heads together to respond to soil testing results and to comments from abutting property owners who attended the June 19 sketch plan hearing.