Revitalization in Downtown Essex Junction?

A new four-story, mixed-use development proposed for 5 Corners in downtown Essex Junction recently received Vermont Act 250 approval. This project, proposed on the former People’s United Bank site, Essex Jct Former Peoples Unitedwill consist of street level retail space, 3 floors of residential apartments, underground parking, and a widened sidewalk wrapping around the corner to create a public plaza feel. If the developers go forward with this project, it will be the first substantial development to occur in downtown Essex Junction in decades. Will this development be the catalyst to finally kick-start a long awaited revitalization of downtown Essex Junction?

As a resident of Essex Junction for 16 years, I have been eagerly waiting for the downtown to undergo some kind of renaissance and become a truly vibrant, pedestrian oriented downtown with a hub of retail shops, restaurants, and employment opportunities.  Various efforts have been undertaken over the years by both Village officials and citizen groups to try and bring life and investment back into the downtown. These include adoption of new zoning regulations designed to encourage dense, mixed-use, downtown type development, the Village obtaining “Village Center” designation from the State which provides access to resources to promote economic development in the downtown area, and construction of beautiful streetscape improvements along Main Street and Railroad Avenue. While I applaud the efforts of Village officials and citizens to try and “get things going”, the reality is not much has really changed in the downtown.

The most successful initiative to breathe life back into downtown Essex Junction has been the citizen led Essex Junction Farmers Market, which attracts hundreds of people to downtown every Friday evening from June through October. Unfortunately, the farmers market operates only about 20 days a year.  What is really needed in downtown Essex Junction is a critical mass of uses, activities and events that attract people every day, 7 days a week, 12 months a year. So, how can the downtown get to where it really wants and needs to be?

Looking at recent downtown revitalization efforts in other Vermont communities, such as Winooski, St. Albans and Barre, there appears to be two critical components necessary for success – significant investment by both the public AND private sector. The successes in Winooski, St. Albans and Barre involved both the public and private sectors becoming, in effect, development partners. It is evident that without a willingness, or buy-in, from both the public and private sectors, revitalization will always be an uphill battle  In the case of Essex Junction, the public sector has been willing to invest in revitalization with the implementation of streetscape improvements and citizen led initiatives such as the farmers market. The missing ingredient to actually achieving success has been private investment.

Essex Jct Downtown 2Perhaps a new four-story, mixed-use development on a prominent corner in downtown Essex Junction will be the missing ingredient needed to jump start revitalization. This new private development, along with publicly funded streetscape improvements and the proposed “Crescent Connector” (a new bypass road designed to improve traffic flow and access underutilized downtown properties) may be the perfect recipe to generate new life and interest in downtown.  While this development is not without controversy (several neighbors have objected to the scale being out of character), it certainly will be something new and different for the downtown. If it proves to be a success, other downtown property owners and developers will have no choice but to take notice. Will this development be the catalyst to finally kick-start a long awaited revitalization of downtown Essex Junction?  My hope is that it will be.

By: Joe Weith