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?
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.