State Senators Oppose Hartford Office Plan
An architect's rendering of a proposed White River Junction office building along the Connecticut River. (Courtesy UK Architects)
White River Junction — Two Windsor County state senators this week said they oppose moving the state prosecutor’s office to a proposed $8 million office complex alongside the Connecticut River in White River Junction, calling the move at odds with Vermont’s “pro-downtown” policy.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, said he is against relocating the Windsor County State’s Attorney Office to Prospect Street, off Route 4 near the bridge to West Lebanon, asserting that the physical distance between the site and the courthouse in White River Junction is too far.
“I do not think it would be a good idea for the State’s Attorneys Office to move to any place that is not in the downtown or close to the courthouse,” Campbell said. “They are right there where they can walk over to the courthouse. No one has to get into a car and drive.”
State Senator Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, cited similar concerns, and said moving the office out of White River Junction’s “core downtown” is counter to the anti-sprawl philosophy the state advocates in order to promote, among other things, government efficiency and energy conservation.
“I’d hate to see the state work against the downtown,” McCormack said on Thursday.
McCormack, who last year met with state building officials to champion another office building proposal in White River Junction, also said in a letter to the Shumlin administration this week that prosecutors would likely get into a car and drive from the Prospect Street site to the courthouse, wasting energy and creating “pointless air pollution.”
“(T)he plan at hand moves activity out of the existing downtown, thus creating no net gain,” McCormack wrote.
The State’s Attorney Office is currently located in the Gates-Briggs Building, which is a short walk across the railroad tracks to the courthouse.
State’s Attorney Michael Kainen, who works out of the offices in the Gates-Briggs Building, said he would prefer to stay put.
“... (I)t makes no sense for each of us to be getting into our cars and driving (a) 1/2 mile several times a day,” Kainen wrote, noting schedules compel staff to make multiple trips to the courthouse in any given day. “It makes sense for us to be located a stone’s throw from the courthouse.”
Kainen even appeared taken aback at the news this week that a developer has proposed to the Hartford Planning Commission to build the office complex on Prospect Street with Vermont state offices as a principal tenant.
“I didn’t realize it was moving along,” he said.
The proposed Prospect Street site is located four-tenths of a mile from Windsor County District Court, and a reporter this week walked between the two locations in 8 minutes.
Vermont Department of Building and General Services Commissioner Michael Obuchowski, a former House Speaker who served with Kainen in the Legislature and whose department oversees state office leases, said he spoke with the state’s attorney on Friday and “assured him if he wanted to stay where he is, that that’s OK.”
He said a meeting will be held in Montpelier with Senators Campbell and McCormack, and possibly Gov. Peter Shumlin, among others, to “learn more” about the Prospect Street location. He said a date hasn’t yet been set for the meeting.
“We have not signed a lease for the property,” Obuchowski said, noting an internal review process has been initiated because of the objections raised to the Prospect Street site.
Don Wells, the president of DEW Properties, the developer behind the almost-six-acre Prospect Street project, said his company signed “an authorization to proceed” agreement “about a year ago” with the Building and General Services department. He said that agreement stated “they are going to rent ‘X’ number of square feet from us within the building.”
“We certainly don’t think anyone is going to back out,” Wells said.
DEW Properties Vice President Steve Morton, the project developer on the Prospect Street site, indicated the company wasn’t aware of the proposed meeting in Montpelier and wrote in an email, “it is not surprising or of concern to DEW.”
In an email last year sent to DEW as well as another group pitching an alternative proposal, Allen Palmer, a property management specialist in the Property Management Services department in Montpelier, said the advantages of the Prospect Street proposal included on-site parking and the fact that “we had previously sent written notification to DEW informing them that we had selected their proposal and can not in good conscience go back on that decision.”
The other group, which comprises Bittinger Associates LLC of Hanover and Main Street Renaissance LLC, proposed to build a new office building to house Vermont state offices on a lot at the corner of Gates and Currier streets between Northern Stage and the United Methodist Church and southwest of the Gates-Briggs Building in White River Junction, according to correspondence between Bittinger and Palmer.
The correspondence shows the proposal was shot down, in part, due to the lack of on-site parking and the need to treat DEW fairly.
David Briggs, whose family owns the Gates-Briggs Building , is a co-partner with Byron Hathorn in Main Street Renaissance. The Main Street Renaissance and Bittinger Associates proposal included 28,000 square feet of space for state offices, originally geared toward housing Agency of Human Services workers who are currently in the Gilman Center, according to the correspondence. But the plan ultimately lost out to the DEW proposal.
Hathorn said in an email Friday that their proposed building was initially designed for the state Human Services offices, but his group was later informed that offices for the state’s attorneys might be included in the plan as well.
William Bittinger, of Bittinger Associates, who is also a managing partner of a development on Railroad Row across from the courthouse, said Friday that he had “nothing to say on that subject,” in regard to potentially reintroducing the Gates and Currier streets proposal if the State’s Attorneys Office refused to relocate to Prospect Street.
As previously reported, Bittinger has plans to build a three-story office and retail building at the corner of Bridge and North Main streets near the Polka Dot Restaurant. Palmer, the property management specialist with the state of Vermont, said in correspondence with an involved party that some state workers would have been located in a North Main Street building, while others would be located at the proposed Gates and Currier streets building — a block away — which he noted would make it difficult for employees.
Hathorn, however, said in an email Friday, “While we might consider locating the Attorney’s offices at the new location at Currier and Gates, their present location is preferable to us as it is in the Gates/Briggs building.”
Hartford Selectboard Chairman Chuck Wooster said, speaking for himself, he favored the Prospect Street proposal, noting it is still qualified as “downtown.”
“No doubt it is farther from the courthouse,” he acknowledged, adding, “It’s still technically in the downtown, both what we the town calls the downtown and what the state calls the downtown.
“In all cases, Prospect Street is part of downtown.”
Wooster alluded to the proposed river walk along the Prospect Street parcel, which is intended to provide a scenic path for pedestrians along the Connecticut River.
“The town hall is right there, the relatively new co-op is right there, the brand new Listen Center is right across the street and the idea would be that you would have this river walk, which would go toward the Listen Center,” he explained.
A $32 million mixed-use development project was previously proposed for the Prospect Street property under a different developer, but fell apart in 2010 because of a lack of funding.
Briggs said he has undertaken numerous upgrades to the Gates-Briggs building to accommodate the State’s Attorneys Office and said he’d hate to lose them as tenants. He declined to say how much the State’s Attorneys Office pays in rent for the 2,970 square feet of space it occupies.
“(The Prospect Street area is) ultimately where the downtown footprint is going to extend,” he said. “But it’s not a good deal when it robs from Peter to pay Paul.”
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.