A Down Town

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the multitude of projects planned, or underway, in Burlington, and thought I should add my voice to those who have expressed concerns with this downtown re-development.

In short, I think we need more information from the developer, city leaders, and this community would benefit from slowing the process down to ensure that the entire Burlington community can benefit from this project.

This isn’t just another housing development like on the old Burlington College property, or Hotel Vermont, or the housing built on No. Winooski Ave. in recent years. This about, in many ways, undoing what went wrong post-Urban Renewal for downtown Burlington.

We’ve gotten a lot right in the past 30 years, which is why this community is ranked among the most livable communities in the US, and why we have such a creative, vibrant city.

I’ve read through the scant information online and the nice promo flyers, but there is some nitty gritty details missing, which is fueling a lot of necessary skepticism that taxpayers aren’t going to see the benefits everyone claims.

And, let’s be honest: Despite the Trump-esque messaging from some in the business community that this project will somehow make Burlington “great again,” it couldn’t be further from the truth. Look at what Melinda Moulton and Main Street Landing have accomplished on the waterfront, largely thanks to the public assets that WE as a community ensured would exist.

There is a lot of building activity in Burlington (throughout the city) and plenty of big projects in the pipeline. Why else would Sinex be proposing this project if there isn’t already a vibrant community in place?

I’m not opposed to downtown development, or building up. I supported the new height allowances adopted several years ago; a reasonable compromise given what some wanted from both sides. That’s when things work best in Burlington – a robust public debate and discussion.

In the past 30 years, Burlington has gone from a big little city to one of the most decorated cities in the country for livability, raising families, starting businesses, and retiring. Not a bad mix.

No one project made that happen. And the projects that did help make that happen had a strong public participation component, as well as inclusion and a visible public benefit. Church Street Marketplace, City Market, the Waterfront (both park cleanups, and new development that came later through Main Street Landing and the housing).

I’d ask the council to take a step back, and really consider the long-term impacts of the project. At a minimum, we should be doing more due diligence, that includes:

  • More details about the financing of the project. If we’re being asked to set aside public money to build it, we need more transparency and details BEFORE we say yes.
  • A little more skin in the game from the developer in terms of the public infrastructure and public good that comes with this project.
  • Make the TIF improvements benefit everyone – like we’ve done on the waterfront – and not just a self-selected crowd of downtown boosters who seek to create a boutique image.
  • The environment! Climate change is real, it’s happening and we should be doing more to reduce cars downtown, increase bikes, pedestrians and public transportation, integrate food forests, rooftop gardens and farms, and require moving to a net zero construction model to keep our city’s carbon footprint at a minimum.
  • Truly put this project in context with all of the other projects being planned, or built, to boost housing and business space. There’s more happening than we’re willing to perhaps acknowledge.
  • Slow things down a little – there’s no real rush here. And, if that’s the developer talking because of a financing window, then maybe we need to question the viability of said financing plan and the demands of investors.

So, let’s ask the hard questions now. And, maybe we take a step back and build in the public equity component from the start?

Height & Design
[As an aside: I agree with Bruce Seifer that the developers should raise balloons to provide a visual demonstration of the building’s dimensions (corners and peak). A little 3D model on a table or a PowerPoint “fly by” do not it justice.]

Why not build within the community standards we have set? Couldn’t we be more creative rather than just simply allowing someone to go up 160’ in the air? Think that’s the first we’ll hear of this kind of variance? Not likely.

Secondly, this development seems dull and vision-less, derived from a decades-old hack design that lacks the vibrancy and creativity that has come to define Burlington. Hide a parking garage, plant a few trees and extend the look and feel of the Marketplace? Oy. For a city as creative and vibrant as Burlington, the design seems pretty bland and suburban – like a denser version of MapleTree Place. Seriously?

Public Good
Put aside the notion that taxpayers should lose out on new taxes in order to fund the public improvements the site needs to be redeveloped. Why shouldn’t the developer pay for it?

The Waterfront TIF that allowed for Hotel Vermont has done wonders for improving the public portion of the waterfront. I don’t see that same being applied here.

Where are the enhanced bike lanes throughout downtown? Or, one-way streets with wider bike lanes and sidewalks? Or, a public bike locker for downtown workers to store their bikes and gear safely a la Boulder? Integrated rooftop farms/gardens? Permanent downtown farmer’s market? Net zero construction? District-heating rather than using more natural gas and power and increasing the city’s carbon footprint?

These things matter, especially in the age of resource constraints, oil depletion, climate change, and when the city itself is sourcing its power from renewables. We need regenerative approaches to development, and realize the slow growth will be the norm in the coming decades. Overbuilding now will only come back to haunt our children’s generation, as we’re seeing it hit our own generations today.

Public Financing should Equal Public Good
If it’s all about financing, then the developer should be upfront and transparent about the financing deal they are pulling together if they want public welfare, er, resources to benefit their project. And, we should see that BEFORE the council approves anything, and before voters approve the TIF expansion.

If you want to create affordable housing – enact rent control, get the colleges to build more on campus housing. Hold developers feet to the fire to work with Champlain Housing Trust, COTS, and other nonprofits to build truly affordable, permanent housing. Building these apartments won’t magically open doors for low-income renters or the homeless. Or help addicts. It’ll make a few people richer, a few businesses healthier, and we’ll just wait for the trickle down – if it happens – while the TIF payments keep paying off the corporate subsidy to Sinex.

We’ve let developers off the hook repeatedly to commit to inclusionary zoning – and now some developers are point to that as a sign it’s not working! Come on, people. Stand up for the values that we’ve imbued into the charter over a period of decades and realize that like developers before him, Sinex will understand that our vision is what is working best – not a bunch of out-of-state financiers.

Personally, I think the developers should be the ones to finance any public improvements that they need to have done; that shouldn’t be on us to make it happen. If they can’t get the financing for all of that, then they should sharpen their pencils.

Burlington will still be here – thriving, creating jobs, opportunity, and attracting people. The market will be here for them, but let’s get it right out of the gate rather than trying to fix things a decade from now and regret seizing an opportunity to make our downtown open to ALL Burlington residents, not just a select few who fit the boutique-ness that is emerging from Church Street and its environs.

I also worry greatly about the future, not just because I have kids, but because the news isn’t all that good when it comes to the climate. There are serious resource constraints, and without forward-thinking development today – not just planting a few trees and adding a bike lane – but truly rethinking how “growth” looks, feels, and benefits a community needs to happen. DeGrowth may be the norm within 20 years, which means doing more with what we have, and giving back to the planet (and people) we’ve taken from for centuries.

Burlington could start living up to that model of growth and development rather than continuing with a failing model.


12 responses to “A Down Town

  1. Thank you for putting the effort to compose this well researched opinion piece. I believe you have done a great service to many of us who haven’t taken the time to clearly present the issues yet to be addressed.
    I hope that somehow this can be entered into the public record, or at least receive wider dissemination.

  2. Really appreciate you adding your voice in, Shay. You articulated many of my concerns well, and they will land all the more due to your public presence as a thinker who cares about Burlington and Vermont. I cannot agree enough that Burlington of all places should be emphasizing the environment and sustainability in every development from here on out. If we want to be a standout city in the future, let’s go in this direction! Also, yes, if developers can’t wait for real public process, perhaps they are not the ones we should be trusting to build appropriately for our town. I wouldn’t trust a contractor who was in a big hurry to do something on my house, either! Side note: I can’t remember where I read this, but a while back someone responded to Bruce Siefer’s balloon suggestion by pointing out that if regular size balloons were put at 14 story heights, we would not be able to see them from the ground without visual aids. Oh, my, that’s high! But they could go with larger balloons, I think. The small scale of the model in the library makes it hard to really see the contrast of heights; no accident there, I’m sure. I hate to feel so cynical, but this one’s been a doozy.

  3. Charlie Messing

    Thanks for your excellent piece, Shay. I mentioned balloons months ago, hadn’t realized anyone else did. I still think it’s a good idea. When I stand on Cherry street, I look almost straight up and picture the building 160 feet tall…it’s way too high. I’d love to get balloons up there for people to see. The Progressive Party has now given us their approval, in an excellent press release. Let’s hope reason will prevail.

  4. Shay, as usual, you hit all the key areas of concern on a project that only became “real” with the May 2 agreement just 108 short days ago–and we all are still finding important opportunities to improve not just reject! It became clear to me just today–and wrote the Mayor and Council–that neither the Walk Bike Council or our talent laden Walk Bike Master Plan groups working for almost 15 months were asked to contribute, review or participate in the “process.” How sad and how totally at odds with the planBTV instructions!
    Thank you. Tony Redington TonyRVT.blogspot.com Pine Street Coalition member

  5. I echo your insistence that the proposed building serve as an example for a new standard in regards to its ecological impact. Moreover, in regards to your heading “Public Good”, I would also add “meeting a zero-discharge standard”. All rainwater collected by the building should be utilized for onsite domestic purposes – washing, bathing, flushing (when flush toilets are spec’d), food prep, drinking – and the use of dry ecological (preferably source-separating) toilets should feature in as many units as possible. All greywater/washwater produced onsite should be treated and reused onsite for irrigation and/or flushing toilets (when flush toilets are spec’d). Given what we know about the challenges staring us in the face its disgraceful that we are continuing to permit obsolete systems and designs in new construction.

  6. Shay. You have written the most important letter of all time. This is just what we all have been trying to put into our two
    Minute talks for the past 4 months
    May we post this everywhere and make copies to use as flyers. Handouts. It is right on target.
    And press release. Maybe we can get you to talk in person. Who should we contact. Call.
    I’ll pay your time. Or we all will chip in.

    Hopefully this can start us on a roll to stop this.
    Councilors have been made aware of legal problems if they counter their agreement w Sinex.

    Thank you. Big Time.

  7. Thanks Shay. We have all been sold a bill of goods on this one apparently by Jane Knodell as well. I too have watched all these projects from the urban renewal to the Alden Plan to the various schemes to develop Moran to the tragic fall of Burlington College and now to the mall and have seen little that has been realized for the benefit of the people of Burlington- only constant and lethal gentrification.
    Thanks for this excellent piece,

    Sandy Baird

  8. In considering higher buildings, they will disrupt views, create more building shadow (might not get to see sunshine in winter months) and may channel wind, again, of particular annoyance in colder months. Traffic issues shouls also be addresses. Basement car park large enough to handle increased cars to the building, and community space on the roof (gardens, tennis courts, par course paths) would be mandatory requirements in designs I would approve. (My opinions are unsolicited and inlikely to be considered.) Variances to existing ordinances just seems the wrong way to go.

  9. $200+ million is quite the catch for the Mayor to score in investment for the city. It is not a trivial amount and could make a huge difference in the future of the city, On the other hand, we are all feeling the sting of the promises broken in Jay and Burke, and the worries of how we got where we did. Let’s try not to be suckered again…

  10. I totally agree with you and have written several letters to the editor regarding this issue.
    What do you suggest we do? Will this ever be brought to the public in the form of a ballot? I’m afraid it is steamrolling ahead and may already be a done deal. Let’s hope not.
    (Maybe next time we also should not elect a developer mayor.)
    Great article – let’s hope the right people read it and pay attention. Thank you.

  11. Pingback: Get Miffed about the TIF | underwood

  12. Pingback: Just Say Whoa | underwood

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