Ali Elwell Zaiac: giving new life to institutional spaces in Vermont
This commentary is written by Ali Elwell Zaiac of Arlington, an MA in Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, where his thesis focused on reallocating church spaces in Vermont to meet the broader needs of the community.
Last week I attended the housing conference hosted by Rep. Seth Bongartz and Rep. Kathleen James at Arlington Commons. The conference touched on many questions about the urgency of the housing shortage in Vermont, and talked a lot about the resources available in the state and the work that is being done.
While this was a great conference and incredibly timely, what struck me the most was where the conference was held.
This was the first event held at the Arlington Commons and was set up in what was previously the sanctuary of the Catholic Church. There is so much you can say about this space.
In 2017, I graduated with a Masters in Theological Studies with a focus on ways churches could use their spaces as a community resource. The Arlington Federated Church has done an amazing job using its space outside of Sunday, hosting everything from Girl Scout meetings to the Farmers Market board meeting.
Arlington Commons vision is to provide space between three buildings for a co-working space and a gymnasium component; the shrine, of course, will become an auditorium for events; and an already established gallery has already opened.
The Commons have taken these buildings that once held an important place in the community and redesigned them to adapt them to the times and to the needs of the community as it grows and evolves.
The lesson we can learn not only from the housing conference, but also from the Arlington Commons, is that stagnation, housing crisis and decline in our cities are not obvious. It is a political choice. The days ahead will require a conversation between neighbors, democratic votes and transparency on the visions of communities, and finally accept that the growth and adaptive reuse of our cities will not be easy for everyone.
Growth is uncomfortable, but the alternative is to tell people who visit this state and fall in love with it, “No, we are full.” Adaptive reuse, like turning a mid-century modern church into a small town concert hall, might be more difficult. It forces us to look at where we have been and where we are going. The walls may not have memories, but many of us surely do.
What’s remarkable about Arlington Commons is that it is part of many projects in Vermont communities. Almost all cities have underused or recently disused public spaces. They can be a challenge to bring back, and many cannot be, but these challenges can be opportunities for new people to get involved.
Like buildings, Vermont is teeming with declining community institutions that can help provide purpose in efforts to preserve and revive old buildings. They are ready-to-use ships for those new to civic life in our cities.
We cannot put more obligations on the shoulders of the handful of volunteers who already serve in public or civic roles. The future path of preserving a community’s most important buildings will often be paved by those who have recently made Vermont their home, working with those who have long been the backbone of our civic past and present.
Buildings in towns and cities in Vermont have always been slowly reinvented. Spaces change hands, businesses close and new ones open, or sometimes not. Barns become homes, artists’ spaces and wedding venues, or they remain barns.
But in today’s historically preserved urban areas, entrepreneurs, new and old, need to get a little more creative – making sure our local institutions, from civic clubs to planning commissions, accept places where people can work together in good faith to breathe new life into our old buildings.
Get it right and a city can avoid the scourge of slowly decaying institutional spaces before it becomes a problem. Do it wrong – well, not much is happening. And the citizens of the city will have to accept it.