Residents weigh in on outlets concept

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Peter Edelmann, right, owner of the Essex Outlets, listens to residents’ comments after his presentation at the Aug. 24 planning commission meeting. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Most residents agree with Peter Edelmann’s belief that the Essex Outlets need a serious facelift. Less ubiquitous is his notion that six-story buildings are the answer.

That was the consensus from residents who squeezed into a packed planning commission meeting last Thursday, offering Edelmann the first public feedback for his plan to redevelop the outlets.

Though at a conceptual stage, his site plans show three construction phases with up to nine new buildings and 400-600 residential units. The project would keep ground-level commercial space the same while demolishing two existing buildings.

Sitting before a crowd of over 60, Edelmann nodded occasionally while residents expressed a trio of concerns. A few worried how the housing influx would add to traffic issues. Others questioned if Essex schools could handle so many new students. And nearly all prescribed the building heights as out of context.

“Six stories is really too high. It’s outside the character of our town,” resident Erynne Ross said. “Essex is not Burlington. Essex is not a suburb of Boston.”

Matt Bryne said the scale makes the project a “tough sell.” Andy Suntup questioned where Edelmann will find tenants for his “mini city.” Liz Douillard said she moved from Massachusetts to get away from such development.

Edelmann earned a more positive response from planning commissioners, who carry a significant role in his project’s viability; only one building in his conceptual plans comes in under the 40 feet allowed by zoning.

O’Leary said that height allows only three stories, making a redevelopment project there impractical. Noting six stories would appear lower in some parts of town because the outlets are sited about 20 feet below nearby roads, he asked the commissioners to consider raising the cap.

They may have a chance to do so as early as next year, thanks to the Essex Town Center Next project, which will recommend changes for the mixed-use planned unit development zone that covers the outlets.

A consulting firm plans to share recommendations in a final report before the planning commission and selectboard can run through the regulatory process.

Village planning commissioner John Alden, who joined the town PC for the discussion, said he’s generally in favor of density when it’s appropriate.

“This is probably the right place,” he said. “I’d rather see it go up where we can manage it than have it sprawl out.”

Commissioner Joshua Knox agreed, adding it appears the choice isn’t between rebuilding or letting the outlets continue as they have.

“The choice, if the economics are correct, is between changing it or just watching it slowly decay,” he said.

In a subsequent interview Monday, Edelmann said he understands their concerns but thought many residents had a “kneejerk reaction.”

In hindsight, he said he would have provided a 3D model of the redevelopment instead of the “placeholder” boxes on the site plans to give residents a better image of the design. He would have also further emphasized his goal to work with organizations like Efficiency Vermont to create an environmentally-friendly project.

Still, the meeting hasn’t changed Edelmann’s overall plan. He’s green-lighted work on a formal sketch plan and is planning to meet with community leaders who have taken interest in the project.

“I’m encouraged enough to move forward and start spending some real money,” he said.