Mayor Miro Weinberger laid out his vision for a decidedly more urbanized Burlington in a forum last week at the Battery Street office of KSV advertising agency. His perspective generally jibed with that of Matt Dodds, head of the Brandthropology marketing group, who told the gathering that Vermont’s economy must be oriented to “the future, not the pasture.”
In a session keyed to the role of the local “creative class” — yet without explicitly addressing the creative economy — Weinberger made clear that he wants Burlington to develop a stronger urban identity, in part by resisting or erasing suburban-style land use. He warned of a risk that the rail yard enterprise zone south of Maple Street could become a “suburbia office park” of one-story buildings. And the mayor pointed to the Rite Aid on South Winooski Avenue as an underdeveloped site now occupied by “a suburban pharmacy.”
Denser development should entail new housing that enables downtown employees to walk to work, said Linda Kelleher, a principal of KSV. Weinberger heartily agreed. As the developer of the 25-unit Packard Lofts residential rental project on North Avenue, he spoke from experience in noting that it has been hard to build such in-fill housing partly because of local regulatory obstacles.
Burlington has thus “largely missed out” on the national trend of residents relocating from suburbia to the urban core, Weinberger noted.He specifically criticized a 50-50 provision in Burlington’s zoning ordinance that requires any new development downtown to devote half its square footage to commercial uses. “That’s gotten in the way” of some housing plans, the mayor said.But he informed his 30 or so listeners of what he considers good news on this front. The city council’s ordinance committee voted 3-0 recently to discard the 50-50 formula, Weinberger reported, adding that he hopes the full council will soon endorse a move clearing the way for apartment houses to rise in the city’s center.
There’s plenty of vacant or underutilized land where such development could occur, the mayor said. And there’s also potentially strong demand for it, he added, suggesting that “hundreds, if not thousands” of Burlington residents would move out of single-family homes and into multi-unit buildings if they were made available.
“A virtuous circle” takes shape when it becomes possible to live within walking distance of one’s workplace, Weinberger continued. New housing of this sort would not only expand the city’s tax rolls; it would reduce the impact on the environment from driving to jobs, he said.
Weinberger outlined several downtown and waterfront projects now in the proposal or planning stage. Some of them, including infrastructure improvements in the vicinity of the Moran Plant and Perkins Pier, could get underway next summer if voters approve these tax-increment financing initiatives, he said.
On a shorter timeline and a more modest scale, the city intends to install this fall a set of seven “pedestrian-activated, rapid-flashing beacons” at newly created crosswalks in the Pine Street corridor, Weinberger said. That’s part of the effort to make Burlington a more walkable city, he noted.
Weinberger hailed the growth of businesses in the Lakeside Avenue section of Pine Street, where food outlets and shops have sprouted to serve workers at Champlain College’s Miller Center, the Innovation Center of Vermont and Dealer.com.In what’s become a familiar meme, that maker of software for car dealerships was touted as a paragon of the tech opportunities that Burlington has begun to produce. The city’s own telecom network is integral in this regard, the mayor said. He relayed a comment made to him by a tech maven to the effect that Burlington Telecom represents “the highest-capacity fiber network in the country.”
That remark prompted Tim Volk, another KSV principal, to ask Weinberger for an update on BT’s woes. The mayor didn’t offer any revelations, but he did challenge Volk’s suggestion that the city has “a moral obligation” to make good on what CitiCapital describes as BT’s $33.5 million debt for leased equipment. “It’s not a loan” that Citi made to BT but rather a complex financing arrangement in which Citi is a partner, not a creditor, Weinberger argued.
He acknowledged “frustration” over the continuing inability to resolve the city-owned utility’s legal and financial problems.
The forum concluded on something of a down note, with Dodds observing that Burlington “can’t make a pitch on the basis of tech as long as the BT lawsuit is out there.”Weinberger didn’t explicitly endorse that view, but he did say, “I completely agree we could be proactively branding Burlington in ways we’re not doing today.”
Photo of Miro Weinberger by Kevin J. Kelley.