HIGHGATE – Three possible layouts for future development in Highgate’s village core were brought before residents for the first time Thursday night during a consultant-led presentation hosted by town leadership.
All three proposed layouts, informed by surveys and public meetings conducted through the summer and early fall of 2018, had several features in common: each saw a building designated for commercial or retail use near the intersection of St. Armand Road and Franklin Street, a new library toward the property’s northern bounds and a grove of maple trees preserved along Gore Road.
In all three designs, the library was situated toward the north of the town’s property, across a parking lot from the commercial space located in the property’s southwest corner. Walkways extended from the Highgate Elementary School toward the library, with the project’s consultants saying the intention was to essentially treat the library as an extension of the school.
Each design also expanded on the town’s sidewalk infrastructure, adding paths that threaded through the property toward existing sidewalk leading from the Highgate Elementary School. Sidewalks were also proposed for the property’s bounds along Franklin Street and St. Armand Road.
The grove of maple trees along Gore Road was, according to BUILD consultant Nathan Suter, deemed “an important symbol for the people of Highgate.”
They varied mostly in the designated uses of the retail space and the location of that retail space relative to the nearby intersection.
A site plan designated “Concept A” saw an L-shaped commercial space pressed into the corner of the intersection. The commercial space was divided into two possible businesses – a 7,150 square foot commercial building and an adjoining 2,400 square foot retail space – with a plaza situated in the building’s northeast corner.
In this design, a performance space and common area was linked to a patio that wrapped around the front of a 5,300 square foot library building.
“Concept B” saw that commercial space moved further into the space currently inhabited by the derelict Machia estate. Pulled away from the roadside, parking was situated in the front of the building toward Franklin Street, and the building itself was split into three separate retail spaces.
The library was reoriented, though it retained the proposed 5,300 square feet of space. Parking took the place of the performance space pitched in “Concept A.”
“Concept C” saw the commercial space oriented more as a strip mall, with four individual retail spaces joined into a single structure edged into the Franklin Street and St. Armand Road intersection. A restaurant was pitched for the largest of those retail spaces, with a proposed patio space alongside it for outdoor seating.
The library was moved away from its corner abutting school property and situated directly across a parking lot from the strip mall. Footpaths from the school still led to the library property, with a wide green space spread out between the school and development on the property.
All three would require the demolition of existing buildings on the property, all of which have fallen into various states of disrepair.
Environmental work would also be required for the site, as lead and asbestos had reportedly bled into the top soils of the property, and further pollution was discovered near the former garage near the center of the property.
A proposed cleanup of at least one section of the property, near the former Stinehour Café, had grant funds secured through brownfield programs for abatements needed ahead of that structure’s demolition. Town officials frequently cite the Stinehour as both “an eyesore” and a safety hazard due to the presence of asbestos and its proximity to Paws for Thought, a veterinary clinic.
The meeting represented the culmination of a lengthy planning project undertaken by the town’s Village Core Master Plan Steering Committee and consultants to design possible uses for a plot of town-owned land in Highgate Center encompassing the former Machia property, the derelict Stinehour Café and the site of an old town garage, as well as a sliver of land currently owned by the Highgate Elementary School.
As of their most recent meeting, the Highgate school board had an article drafted to, pending voter approval on Town Meeting Day, sell the school’s portion of the property in question to the town.
According to school board chair Chris Sheppard, the plan was to have the sale finalized before a consolidation under Act 46 would require the approval of a unified school district shared with Franklin and Swanton.
“We wanted to do that before the merger,” Sheppard said. “That way it’s still a Highgate board decision and not a whole district decision.”
While the proposed plot of land abuts both Gore Road and Franklin Street, none of the possible plans for the property include the plot directly at those streets’ intersection. That corner currently belongs to Paws for Thought and each plan assumes the lot will remain in private use.
The team of consultants handling the planning process and design work was made up of contractors from BUILD., Centerline Architects and the Housing Initiative.
Costs and surveys
The consultants attached price tags to each conceptual design but emphasized that each listed price was only really conceptual at this point and likely wouldn’t be fronted by the town alone, depending on how Highgate approached grants and development of the commercial space.
They listed the building cost of “Concept A” to be $6 million, “Concept B” at $6.9 million and “Concept C” at $6.5 million.
A separate preliminary cost summary circulated among those in attendance Thursday night swelled those costs to $6.9 million, $7.9 million and $7.6 million, respectively. Those latter costs included engineering and planning that weren’t included in the building costs initially mentioned by consultants.
“There’s a lot of assumptions here,” said Centerline’s Kevin Racek. “But I’m giving you a sense of what everything is, and they’re all identified here. In terms of moving costs, there’s a lot of moving parts… but it’s not the absolute cost. We are in the very beginning of design.”
According to Racek and the Housing Initiative’s Paul Simon, the overall cost wouldn’t have to fall entirely on the town. The town could prepare the proposed commercial space for development before selling the site to a developer, leaving the actual building costs to that developer, Simon said.
This is the approach St. Albans City has used for three redevelopment projects – Ace Hardware, the new state office building and the Hampton Inn – cleaning up polluted properties and then selling them to the developer who constructs and owns the building.
In that scenario, a Highgate-issued request-for-proposal could include structural and use guidelines developers would have to follow, like requesting restaurant space, though Simon recommended that Highgate “keep it open… [and] invite the market to provide some solutions.”
In that scenario, according to consultants, the majority of the town’s share of the costs would be directed at the proposed new library. “It’s not going to be $6 million,” Racek said. “We’re looking at a much smaller portion the town will have to take on for the library site.”
Consultants recommended that Highgate pursue the library ahead of marketing a corner lot for commercial development, as both the presence of the library and its corresponding infrastructure – parking lots, entryways, etc. – would make the site more attractive to developers.
They also recommended the project be approached in phases, a sentiment seconded by both town officials and Northwest Regional Planning Commission Senior Planner Greta Brunswick.
Highgate’s reported wants and needs were identified in surveys the village core’s steering committee had had posted online and around Highgate over the course of the summer.
According to returned surveys, recreation and food and drink were prioritized in 37.7 percent and 36.8 percent of responses, respectively. The next highest priority, shopping, was favored by only 14 percent of responses.
Seventy-four percent of respondents said they felt comfortable using at least some municipal funds to develop the village core.
Simon and Racek noted that, depending on what the town ultimately decided to do with the village core, grant funding would be likely be readily available, its claim to grants bolstered by its state-officiated designation as a village center.
The costs of developing the former Machia property did incite some noted apprehension from the several dozen community members present, as did the suggestion that parking empty into Highgate’s main thoroughfare on Franklin Street without some extra traffic controls put into place.
Town officials emphasized, however, the plans being presented to residents weren’t concrete yet.
“One of the things to remember is that none of these plans are in concrete,” said selectboard chair Sharon Bousquet. “You have to start somewhere, and these are dreams – places to go and, if you went this direction, what it would cost.”
Development of the village core would likely be a years-long process, requiring everything from feasibility studies for utilities to environmental remediations for present lead and asbestos contamination noted in past soil studies at the site.
The town’s next step was likely going to be an abatement of the Stinehour Café, with selectperson and steering committee member Steve LaFar saying that he hoped demolition could occur ahead of Town Meeting Day in March.
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