What can do you with 27 acres? Quite a lot. Developer Eric Farrell, the city of Burlington, the Vermont Land Trust and Champlain Housing Trust unveiled plans Tuesday night to build a neighborhood from scratch on the lakefront property that Farrell bought from Burlington College last year.
Their vision: Preserve 12 of the acres closest to the lake as a public park and erect 570 units of housing on the rest. Farrell also plans to develop 200 additional units on property currently owned by the college, including the former orphanage building, which he's signed an agreement to purchase from the college.
When Burlington College, under financial duress, sold the property to Farrell, people worried that one of the city's largest swaths of open space would become a housing development. A group called Save Open Space-Burlington formed. In response to the public outcry, Farrell agreed to collaborate with the city, the land trust and CHT and hold a public process to hash out the property's future.
At an earlier meeting, preservation advocates clashed with the organizers. The Tuesday event got off to a more genial start — in the basement of the St. Joseph's School in the Old North End, artists and activists mingled while eating pizza. Roughly 40 people showed up to see the conceptual plans.
Farrell is proposing to build a mix of rental units, condos and townhouses in buildings that range from three to five stories. Champlain Housing Trust, an affordable housing developer, would build 160 of the units, 80 of which would be for seniors. Reiterating the high demand for affordable housing, chief financial officer Michael Monte said the proposed project is "probably from an income basis one of the most integrated neighborhoods you would find anywhere in Burlington."
Three quarters of the parking would be below ground — terraced into the downward sloping land.
At a cost of $2 million, the city plans to purchase 12 acres, including Texaco Beach. Burlington has a Conservation Fund that's accumulated roughly $1 million over the years, which Parks and Recreation Director Jesse Bridges suggested could be used. Current community gardens would be expanded, and a building known as the Stone House could potentially be converted to a community center.
During the question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting, people focused on specific aspects of the plan rather than protesting the notion of any development occurring on the site.
Parks and Recreation Director Jesse Bridges, middle, and Gil Livingston, Vermont Land Trust president, right, field questions from the audience.
Several members of the audience did want to know if preserving more land was still an option. Land Trust president Gil Livingston didn't dismiss the possibility but emphasized that $2 million was already a sizable sum to raise.
Among the other questions asked: How will the new project impact traffic on North Avenue? How will a large development a stone's throw from Lake Champlain minimize stormwater runoff? Bridges said these concerns would be addressed as the project moves forward.
As currently envisioned, the plan also requires zoning changes, in part to allow for taller buildings. Requesting those changes will delay the development review process, but Farrell said he hopes to have permits in hand by next summer. The developer let the other project partners do the talking, but during an interview afterwards, he summarized his perspective: "We need housing as much as we need open space." With this proposal, he said, "I think we've got a real nice balance."