October 25, 2014

Contest could help grow Maple Tree Place into downtown

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Entries sought for plans to develop town green

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Town officials have long hoped Maple Tree Place would coalesce into Williston’s downtown, a shopping area and community gathering place much like the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington. That distant vision may finally be inching toward reality.

The owners of the retail and office development on Monday announced a design contest that will determine the best plan for developing what has long been viewed as central to that effort, the project’s so-called town green. The grassy, 53,000-square-foot square at the heart of the development is surrounded by two-story retail and office buildings, and a 10-screen multiplex.

The contest, called “Make A Green Come True,” seeks entries from college students, but is also open to those who have a background in landscape architecture. A $1,000 prize will be awarded to the winner.

“Our goal is to make Maple Tree Place a gathering spot similar in scope to the ambiance of a Vermont town center,” said Richard Golder, the development’s property manager, in a news release announcing the contest. “Through the ‘Make A Green Come True’ contest, we want to foster a sense of pride and enjoyment for residents of Williston and beyond.”

For years the town has tried to steer retail development away from aimless sprawl and toward being a seamless part of the community, said Town Planner Lee Nellis. Though he said Maple Tree Place has not yet lived up to its potential to become downtown Williston, improving the green was an important step in that direction.

“Williston’s stated goal not just for this project but all commercial development has long been not to have suburban sprawl,” Nellis said. “Instead, the town wants it to have the character of a community center or gathering place.”

The Inland Real Estate Group of Companies, based in Illinois, bought Maple Tree Place in May from Connecticut-based Starwood Ceruzzi LLC for $102.3 million. The sale came amid continuing concerns that the project had not fulfilled its permit conditions, which were designed to ensure that Maple Tree Place amounted to more than just a collection of big-box stores.

Nellis first proposed the design contest to Starwood Ceruzzi about a year ago. He said the company greeted the idea with skepticism, but Inland was more receptive.

Lindsey Burke, marketing manager for Inland U.S. Management LLC, the subsidiary that manages Maple Tree Place, acknowledged that the contest was driven in part by a desire to satisfy the development’s retailers and draw more customers. But she said that Inland also shared the town’s vision of a gathering place for residents.

“Yes, we would like sales to go higher. Who doesn’t?” Burke said. “But we also want to live up to our promises. We want to make sure retailers are happy, the town is happy and residents are happy.”

It is unclear exactly what the green will look like when it is improved. Nellis said the eventual result could be a space like City Hall Park in Burlington. Inland officials say the design contest is aimed at producing a place where concerts, farmer’s markets and other community events can be held.

“We’re looking for a new take on a park,” Burke said. “We don’t want to end up with just benches and a path.”

Contest rules limit the total cost of the project to $75,000, and the judging criteria include “cost-effective maintenance.” By comparison, the new playground at Williston Central School cost more than $130,000 to construct.

The spending limit might be flexible, Burke said. She suggested the design could entail a project done in phases, allowing it to stay within budget in its first year while additions are made in the future.

Other judging criteria include functionality and design value, utilization of landscaping, creativity and effectiveness of a barrier around the green that will separate pedestrians and traffic.

The contest will be judged by a panel to include representatives from Inland, the Williston Selectboard and the Vermont chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Burke said.

Applicants must at least 18 years old. The deadline for entries is Jan. 20. The winner will be announced on or around Feb. 17. Inland hopes to break ground on the project in the spring.

For more information on entering the Make a Green Come True contest, contact Burke at burke@inlandgroup.com or call (877) 6-INLAND. Contest rules are available on the Observer’s Web site, www.willistonobserver.com.

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