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Bob Stevens of M & S Development, left, and Danny Lichtenfeld, executive director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, stand in front of 11 Arch Street, a former power generation station that will be demolished to make way for a 55,000 square-foot building that will contain new gallery space and 24 housing units.

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A small museum makes big plans for expansion

Museum, developer plan to put art and housing under one roof with $30 million expansion

BRATTLEBORO—The architectural renderings might be conceptual, but the idea is not.

The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) has announced a new museum to showcase contemporary art.

The new structure will also provide 24 units of new housing downtown.

Members of the team behind the multi-story, $30 million, arts-driven community and economic-development project formally unveiled their plans at an event at the museum on Nov. 19.

BMAC, in partnership with M&S Development — an entity whose principal is a primary figure in the redevelopment of the Brooks House and other properties in the region — have already invested $650,000 in the project’s early phases. When completed, the 55,000 square-foot building will anchor the area of lower Main Street where the Barrows Block and 11 Arch St. now stand.

“Brattleboro is this fabulous arts town and the hub of an arts-rich region,” said Danny Lichtenfeld, BMAC executive director.

Yet, he added, the town lacks a strong visible focal point for the arts — and, Lichtenfeld said, one of the intentions behind the new center is to increase the visibility of the arts community.

“This ambitious project will transform BMAC from a hidden gem into one of America’s most vibrant regional museums,” he said.

So far, the project team has invested approximately $650,000 in the project. This includes purchasing property, early architectural design, and completing a fundraising feasibility study. Lichtenfeld said the museum has raised approximately $2.5 million.

If all goes according to plan, the project team will cut the ribbon in 2022.

Addressing the museum’s needs

This project will provide BMAC with large gallery space and an easy way to move art in and out of the building — two features lacking in the museum’s current home in the historic Union Station.

According to Lichtenfeld, BMAC is part of a small percentage of museums in the country that don’t have their own permanent collection. Part of that is due to the existing museum’s small footprint.

Another disadvantage of using a former train station as a museum is that occasionally Lichtenfeld has had to pass on exhibits because the art is either too big for the museum’s gallery or the building’s climate is not controlled to protect the art adequately if the materials used by the artists so require.

The town officially owns the existing museum space and leases the building for $1 per year to BMAC. The current lease extends until 2042, said Lichtenfeld.

Creating new spaces

Increasing the visibility of the arts is only part of the equation for the center.

Economic development is also a goal, said Lichtenfeld and Bob Stevens, principal at Brattleboro’s M&S Development.

“We know that investing in vibrant downtowns creates jobs, increases property values, and attracts young families,” Stevens said.

The proposed 55,000-square-foot building, designed by Boston-based Silver Architects, will include three floors for museum gallery space and areas for educational programing.

The building will contain commercial spaces, such as a restaurant, café, and a gift shop, said Lichtenfeld.

Plans also call for an outdoor eating area, a catwalk across the Whetstone Brook, a rooftop sculpture garden, and a kayak launch.

Housing will occupy the upper stories, explained Stevens. As envisioned, the living spaces will include a mix of affordable rental apartments, some smaller spaces for artists, and condominiums for purchase, he said.

Three buildings will be removed

The project started in 2014 when BMAC acquired 11 Arch St., a dirt road that snakes down the hill and behind the buildings on the east side of Main Street, from Green Mountain Power.

GMP sold the vacant building to the museum for $1 for potential use as a second gallery.

At the time, the power company had demanded a number of deed restrictions for the former power generation site for fear of environmental contamination after decades of power generation on the property. The company said the site could not be used for residential buildings or a daycare site, and the project team couldn’t dig into the groundwater.

These restrictions were lifted after the BMAC conducted two phases of environmental surveys of the area and found the site was cleaner than expected, said Lichtenfeld.

In 2017, the project team acquired a federal Brownfields grant to help with additional cleanup. Lichtenfeld and Stevens said they are holding the money until the construction phase of the project begins.

Built in 1850, the building at 11 Arch St. served as a power-generation site for decades, said Stevens.

Stevens said the team investigated preserving some of its historic features, such as the arch windows overlooking the Whetstone. Unfortunately, the building had passed the point of feasible restoration, he said.

He said the project team has pictures of the site from the 1930s with transformers on the roof.

Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS), the predecessor company to GMP, allowed the late architect Leo Berman to repurpose space in the 1990s.

Berman was the also the architect behind renovating and creating three iconic Main Street properties — the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, the Paramount Building, and the Hooker-Dunham Building.

Stevens said that at 11 Arch St., Berman created spaces for artist studios and a water-based massage business.

But in 2004, CVPS boarded up 11 Arch St.

The museum found it wouldn’t be viable to rehabilitate the structure, Stevens said. Most of what remains is “a shell,” and parts of it are under water, he said, noting that it also has structural and environmental issues.

In 2018, the project team purchased the two other properties — both owned by Kathleen D. Cooke of Brattleboro through the entity KDC, LLC — to increase the museum’s footprint.

BMAC has purchased the Barrows Block at 35 Main St., a strip of storefronts at 37–43 Main St. and 5 Arch St.

The museum paid $203,000 for both parcels. These structures will also be torn down to make space for the project.

According to an environmental site assessment of the buildings, the one-story, brick Barrows Block was built in the early 1920s. It has been vacant since 2014.

The Barrows Block was heavily damaged in a 1977 fire that destroyed an adjacent three-story commercial building. The site sat vacant until 1985, when the current one-story wood building was constructed. That space is occupied by a nail salon, an Asian massage practitioner, and the Blue Moose Bistro.

Other changes entail removing the retaining wall along the Union Station side of Bridge Street and widening the existing sidewalk. Builders will also construct a pedestrian walkway on Bridge Street that will go across the Whetstone and into the new building.

The project team also has plans to add a temperature-controlled atrium to the Union Station building.

Lichtenfeld said this new entryway will provide better wheelchair access, in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Its environmental controls will also help protect the museum’s collections.

He said the exiting museum will become the permanent home to showcase work of Vermont artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason.

Fundraising

“We want people to know we’re working on this and we’re well down the road,” said Lichtenfeld about why the team decided to announce before launching a full capital campaign. “We’re at the point of having something to show.”

Project funding will encompass a mix of federal, state, and private monies.

According to Lichtenfeld, BMAC needs to raise $12 million in charitable gifts. The museum has also pledged to raise $3 million in endowment funds.

M&S will need to secure $10 million to $12 million in equity and financing.

The remaining $6 million to $8 million will come from federal and state tax credits and grants, said Lichtenfeld and Stevens.

When completed, the building will provide new taxes for the town, they said. While the museum and education spaces will likely be tax-exempt, the commercial and residential portions of the building will be taxed.

Stevens said that mixed-use buildings like the new center are “part of making this whole downtown economy work.”

Downtown economies traditionally thrived on retail, said Stevens, who observed that just as the retail landscape has changed with more online shopping, downtowns must shift their focus as well.

Cultural attractions, restaurants, housing, and places that offer experiences can fill the gaps left by transitional retail.

“As the downtown goes, so the economy goes,” he added.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #537 (Wednesday, November 20, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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