On October 27, 2021

Giving new life to Vermont’s institutional spaces

By Ali Elwell Zaiac

Editor’s note: Ali Elwell Zaiac, of Arlington, holds a master’s degree in theological studies from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., where her thesis focused on repurposing church spaces in Vermont to meet broader community needs.

Last week I attended the housing conference hosted by Rep. Seth Bongartz and Rep. Kathleen James at the Arlington Commons. The conference addressed many questions on the urgency of the housing shortage in Vermont, and talked a lot about the resources available in the state and work that is being done.

Courtesy arlingtoncommon.org
Conceptual plans for Music Hall at Arlington Common, a retrofitted performing arts center specializing in music and other artistic and educational performances. The Hall, built in 1963, currently seats over 275 in an amphitheater-style hall suited to concerts, special events (plays, TED Talks, presenta- tions, etc.) school concerts, town plays, meetings, etc.

While it was a great conference and incredibly timely, what struck me more was where the conference was held.

This was the first event held at the Arlington Commons and was set up in what previously was the Catholic Church’s sanctuary. There are so many things you can say about this space.

In  2017, I graduated with a master’s degree in theological studies with a focus that looked at ways churches could use their spaces as a community resource. The Arlington Federated Church has done an incredible job of utilizing its space outside of Sundays, hosting everything from Girl Scout meetings to the farmers’ market board meeting.

The vision of the Arlington Commons is to provide space among three buildings for co-working space and a gym component; the sanctuary, of course, will become an auditorium for events; and an already established gallery has already opened.

The Commons has taken these buildings that once held an important place in the community and reimagined them to fit the times and needs of the community as it grows and evolves.

The lesson we can take not only from the housing conference, but also the Arlington Commons, is that stagnation, housing crisis and decay of our towns is not a given. It is a political choice. The days ahead will require conversation among neighbors, democratic votes and transparency on what communities’ visions are, and ultimately accepting that growth and adaptive reuse of our towns won’t be easy for everyone.

Growth is uncomfortable, but the alternative is telling people who visit this state and fall in love with it, “Nope, we’re full.” Adaptive reuse, like turning a midcentury modern church into a small-town concert hall, might be more challenging. It forces us to look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. The walls may not have memories, but many of us surely do.

What’s remarkable about Arlington Commons is that it sits among many projects in communities across Vermont. Almost every town has public spaces that are being underused, or recently disused. They can be a challenge to bring back, and many can’t be, but these challenges can be opportunities for new people to get involved.

Like buildings, Vermont is rife with fading community institutions that can facilitate bringing a reason for being into efforts to preserve and bring life to old buildings. They’re readymade vessels for those new to civic life in our towns.

We can’t put more obligations on the shoulders of the handful of volunteers who are already serving in public or civic roles. The future path to preserving the most important buildings of a community will often be paved by those who have just recently called Vermont home, working with those who have long been the backbone of our civic past and present.

Buildings in Vermont’s towns and village centers have always seen slow reinvention. Spaces change hands, businesses close and new ones open, or sometimes not. Barns become homes, artist spaces, and wedding venues, or they stay barns.  But in today’s historically preserved town areas, entrepreneurs, new and old, have to get a little more creative — by ensuring our local institutions, from civic clubs to planning commissions, are accepting places where people can work together in good faith to give our old buildings new life.

Get this right, and a town can head off the blight of slowly decaying institutional spaces before it becomes a problem. Get it wrong — well, nothing much happens. And citizens of the town will have to accept that.

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