Public Design Process Planned for Former Burlington College Property | Off Message

Public Design Process Planned for Former Burlington College Property


The property behind Burlington College, most of which is now owned by Eric Farrell - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • The property behind Burlington College, most of which is now owned by Eric Farrell
A developer's plan to build hundreds of housing units on the recently purchased lakefront property behind Burlington College has attracted intense interest from city residents. Now, the developer, Eric Farrell, is agreeing to public scrutiny.

Recognizing that the land is iconic, Farrell and the city announced an agreement today to take part in a "collaborative planning process" that will include public input and could change the development plan.

As part of a memorandum of understanding signed Friday, Farrell will work with the city, the Vermont Land Trust and Champlain Housing Trust to arrive at a consensus about what should happen on the 28-acre property. The four entities will share the cost of a consultant who will run a design workshop. The agreement is nonbinding, meaning the city or Farrell can terminate the arrangement if they reach an impasse. 

The agreement requires that any new proposal include eight components that mirror the goals Mayor Miro Weinberger laid out several months ago. It calls for a range of housing. It would preserve some open space, and ensure continued public access to the beach. (The full agreement is below.) 

Farrell, who up until this point has said little publicly about his plans, emphasized his local roots and the need for housing in a press release sent by Weinberger's office. “I was born and raised in Burlington and now live in the New North End," he said. "As a longstanding resident, I am as concerned as anyone with how this strategic property is developed. I applaud the mayor’s leadership in promoting a collaborative and inclusive process for adding desperately needed housing to the city’s supply, in the context of a vibrant new neighborhood that can be a model for smart growth and sustainability. The entire community can and should benefit from the development of this property.”

Weinberger, who has taken some flak on the campaign trail for supporting housing on the property, said the process will give the greater community the "opportunity to have its voice heard."

Not everyone is appeased. Andy Simon is part of a group called Save Open Space-Burlington, which formed in response to the sale of the property. Members want to preserve the entire 28 acres, and have been lobbying city council members and the mayor to hold a public process to discuss the land's future. 

Simon said he is "somewhat encouraged" by the mayor's announcement, but he's disappointed that the process hinges on the assumption that housing will be a part of the project. "It's developers talking to developers about how much housing we’ll have," he said. He also questioned whether community members will have real influence, adding, "It's got that fatal word 'input' in it. You know public input is not public power. It's just asking for your opinion about whether you like this option better than that option." 

The agreement does not specify how long the process will last, but it will occur before Farrell begins the formal permitting process. Here's the agreement:

Site Design Process - Memorandum of Understanding
Former Burlington College Land

BC Community Housing, LLC (“BCCH”) is the owner of 27.65 acres of land recently purchased from Burlington College, located at 311 and 329 North Avenue, Burlington and situated between North Avenue and Lake Champlain (“the Property”).

BCCH desires to engage with the following entities: the City of Burlington (“City”), the Vermont Land Trust (“VLT”), and the Champlain Housing Trust (“CHT”), (collectively, the “Interested Parties”), in a non-binding collaborative planning process for the purpose of exploring possible site designs for the Property.

The Interested Parties and BCCH recognize that the Property is iconic and offers the community a unique opportunity to address the significant demand for additional housing within the City, while also responding to other important community needs in creative ways.

The Interested Parties also recognize that any outcome of this process must take into consideration BCCH’s substantial investment in the Property and financial risk and allow BCCH to achieve its financial objectives, as determined by BCCH, in its sole discretion.

The Interested Parties also recognize that while the City of Burlington may participate in the process outlined in this MOU, this process shall occur prior to the commencement of the formal regulatory approval process, and no participation by the City or term of this MOU shall bind the City in its role as regulatory authority (e.g., its Development Review Board) or require or authorize the City to act contrary to any constitutional or statutory obligation it may have.

The Interested Parties will explore alternative designs to BCCH’s current Master Plan consistent with the City’s comprehensive plan that incorporate the following goals:

1. A range of housing types should be incorporated into the development, including housing that will serve a range of income levels and that will provide opportunity for homeownership as well as rental opportunities;

2. The final Plan should include open space, some of which may be required as part of the zoning process, but some of which may require consideration of reasonable compensation to the owner; the open space, including the waterfront beach area west of the bike path, should be open to the public; community gardens and the existing East – West connection to the Bike Path should be enhanced so as to increase the public access to the Waterfront from the Old North End;

3. The bluffs directly east of the bike path should be protected from any construction and development;

4. The development should be sensitive to and protect significant natural features, especially a path, and the tree scape on the bluffs, as well as cultural resources, such as the old orphanage;

5. Neighborhood commercial uses that serve the local neighborhood should be allowed but not required and as a result, consideration should be given to allowing currently prohibited uses;

6. Development of this property should enhance revitalization of Old North End, and commerce along North Avenue should be considered;

7. The development should support alternative modes of transportation in order to minimize traffic impacts;

8. The site plan should incorporate “sustainability” components, such as composting, stormwater management, food production, and energy savings where possible and appropriate.

The Interested Parties will retain a qualified consultant (“Consultant”) to facilitate a process that will take broad public input, the product of which may be one or more alternative site plans for the Property. VLT, the City and BCCH will establish a reasonable budget for and share in underwriting the cost of the Consultant’s work, and BCCH together with the Interested Parties will direct this work. This process will include:

· The Consultant’s familiarizing itself with the Property’s physical characteristics, its history, the surrounding landscape context, applicable regulatory and permit constraints, and other relevant information.

· The Consultant’s preparing for and conducting an intensive workshop in which the BCCH, the Interested Parties and other community members and experts, including real estate experts, are brought together to help envision one or more alternative site plans for the Property.

· Opportunities for community input before the Interested Parties and BCCH reach agreement on a preferred site plan.

The formal participants in the workshop will be:

BCCH through Eric Farrell and Will Raap, together with its design team of TJ Boyle and Associates, Duncan–Wisniewski Architecture, Civil Engineering Associates

Champlain Housing Trust through Michael Monte

City of Burlington through Jesse Bridges, Peter Owens and a Representative to be selected by the Council

Vermont Land Trust through Gil Livingston

BCCH and the Interested Parties may invite other participants whose knowledge or perspective could improve the process and design outcomes.

During the design process, or as a product of that process, if BCCH and the Interested Parties reach consensus on a preferred site plan that meets the above goals (“Plan”), the Interested Parties will:

1) Work collaboratively to address any conflict or issues related to City regulations, zoning ordinances, or permitting processes (to the extent this would not conflict with the City’s regulatory role or statutory obligations);

2) Work in good faith to determine a fair and equitable way to achieve all the components of a successful Plan, including utilizing sources such as the Open Space Conservation Fund and other creative methods for offsetting the cost/financial impact to BCCH of the public access and open space components of the Plan to the extent they are not required by existing regulations;

3) Consider how other reasonable public incentives, financing mechanisms or other tools could help advance the success of the Plan; and

4) If appropriate, coordinate with the City Council to facilitate the approval of an agreement by the Council to any public funding or actions.

If despite the good faith efforts of BCCH and the Interested Parties, it appears to either BCCH or the City that they have reached or will likely reach an impasse and/or are unlikely to reach agreement on a revised Plan to be submitted for regulatory approval, then this agreement may be unilaterally terminated by either BCCH or the City. Upon termination, the Interested Parties shall have no obligation under this agreement.

BCCH and the Interested Parties will meet with the Consultant to develop a scope of services, timeline and design process details.

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