Owner of prominent White River Junction buildings floats plans for their future

The Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (VtDigger - Maggie Cassidy)

The Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (VtDigger - Maggie Cassidy) VtDigger — Maggie Cassidy

By ETHAN WEINSTEIN

VTDigger

Published: 01-31-2024 7:35 PM

David Briggs, who owns two large buildings that are at the heart of downtown White River Junction, is starting to talk publicly about an “exit plan.”

Last week, Briggs presented a mockup to the Hartford Selectboard of his vision for the Coolidge block, the building that includes the iconic Hotel Coolidge and a number of small businesses. His plan would involve knocking down the decaying three-plus-story building. The replacement structure would be a five-story building with underground parking, first-floor commercial space, housing and possibly a hotel.

The Hotel Coolidge, a contributing building to the White River Junction Historic District, is the property’s most recent iteration after fires in 1878 and 1925 destroyed previous structures. Nathaniel Wheeler, who purchased the hotel in the early 20th century, named it after John Coolidge, father of President Calvin Coolidge.

Briggs told the board that he is on a “quest” for the “highest and best use and outcome” for the Coolidge block and is currently functioning as a “pre-developer” while he works on securing a buyer or buyers. Though in active talks, he declined to share more details — both with the selectboard and in a later interview with VTDigger — on who might purchase the building.

Briggs owns both the Coolidge block and the neighboring Gates-Briggs building, which contains businesses like the Tuckerbox restaurant and the retail shop Revolution, as well as the Windsor County State’s Attorney’s offices and Briggs Opera House upstairs. The two buildings together make up a large chunk of the core of downtown White River Junction.

In an interview, the 77-year-old Briggs called the sale of the buildings “inevitable.” He’s been owner-operator of the Hotel Coolidge since 1985, and the Gates-Briggs building has been in his family since 1972. After all that time, he’s excited about the sale and rejuvenation of the buildings, particularly the Coolidge block.

“I’m thrilled about this whole thing. I just think it’s a natural, obviously positive, nothing-wrong-with-it kind of thing,” he said. “My concern would be people are doubtful and nervous.”

While the most recent mock-up that Briggs presented to the selectboard included 41 residential units and 67 or 68 hotel rooms, he said the final project would likely be different.

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“The fact of the matter is right now, if that property is transformed, it probably is not going to be a hotel because the economics, sadly, don’t support it,” Briggs said. “So, basically, it would be municipal parking, high-grade commercial and housing. And the housing would be market-rate housing and workforce housing in tandem.”

According to Briggs, he expects a developer would raze the Coolidge block but keep the older Gates-Briggs building as is, due to its sturdier state.

Briggs has been part of White River Junction’s “renaissance,” a decades-long transition from what he called a “railroad economy” into a “creative economy.” Now, as he thinks about how his properties could be transformed, he’s hoping that talking openly with the town will allow the community to offer input into the future of downtown, and to slowly come to terms with the “inevitability” of redevelopment.

It’s an approach, he said, that “gives people time” to think about change.

Such dramatic plans would likely require input from many regulatory bodies. They could include Hartford’s planning commission, its zoning board and its historic preservation commission, as well as the area’s Act 250 district commission, among others, said Lori Hirshfield, Hartford’s planning and zoning director, in an interview.

“Certainly we want to help support revitalization of buildings,” she said, adding that she has talked to Briggs about his plans. “We really can’t dig into the ‘how it’s all going to play out’ until we have the specifics.”

Kim Souza is a Hartford Selectboard member and owns Revolution, a clothing store in the Gates-Briggs building. Speaking personally, and not for the board, she acknowledged that the change could be a “huge upheaval.”

“It definitely is not a surprise,” Souza told VTDigger of Briggs’ plans to sell the property. “He is thinking about his legacy, and I think he’s got some potential investors that would make something close to what his dream scenario would look like.”

Despite what the change — potentially years down the road — might mean for her business, Souza remained “optimistic.”

“We’re pretty resilient and adaptable,” she said. “The Upper Valley shows up for their small businesses.”