About 120 people turned out Monday night for an update on the long-stalled and not universally loved Champlain Parkway in Burlington's South End. At the outset, moderator Greg Marchildon schooled the crowd on the purpose of the event, saying it was to provide information, rather than to be a forum to protest the $30-plus million, 2.5-mile road project.
"We are not here to litigate the design,'' said Marchildon, executive director of Vermont AARP, which hosted the event with cooperation from city leaders backing the project. "The Parkway is moving forward."
The meeting at Champlain School unfolded in an orderly manner with no rabble-rousing to speak of. After presentations on the road design by state and local officials, including Chapin Spencer, director of Burlington Public Works, a panel took questions from the audience, not via microphone, but submitted on index cards, which Marchildon read aloud to the panelists for responses.
Explaining the format of the meeting, Marchildon said he wanted avoid allowing anyone to dominate at the microphone. At the end, he said that he had enough time to ask all but three questions, adding that he "read them all verbatim" and "did not editorialize."
The format was undemocratic said Burlington resident Barbara McGrew. There were people in the audience Monday who had things to say about improving the design of the road, but they didn't get a chance to speak because of the meeting's format, McGrew said. "The city is very good at coming up with processes that seem like they are orderly, but silence a lot of people."
McGrew said she doesn't see the point of the parkway, which would arc from Interstate 189 at the southern gateway of Burlington to Lakeside Avenue, and from there would connect with Pine Street to shuttle more cars downtown. A portion of the parkway was built in the 1980s, but never opened to traffic because of permitting problems. The road now has a state environmental permit and is scheduled for construction in 2018, despite opposition from some artists who work in the South End.
Even supporters of the parkway, including Spencer, acknowledged aspects of the project aren't ideal. For example, it will dead-end at the southern end of Pine Street, missing an opportunity to link to Queen City Road. In addition the project will neither include a park-and-ride facility, which residents have requested, nor will it increase the width of sidewalk in front of the busy Arts Riot space on Pine, as has been requested.
McGrew said the supporters seemed to be saying: "Just build it, and we'll fix it later. My question would be, if you know these things, why not build it correctly from the start?"
Others in the audience think the project will be helpful, with redesigned intersections, a new stretch of multi-use path on the west side of Pine Street, and the connection to 189. "It represents progress for the city, progress for a progressive city," said Steve Conant, owner of Conant Metal and Light on Pine Street. The amenities will improve the experience for non-drivers on Pine Street, and on balance, he said, the road sounds like an improvement.
Conant was surprised by the mellow tone of the meeting. "I think the meeting was informative and unexpectedly civil."
As Spencer explained, the current Parkway is not the four-lane highway that was conceived in the 1960s. Early versions would have plowed through Burlington's waterfront, laying a thick swath of concrete and putting historic buildings such as Union Station at risk of demolition. He acknowledged that some of the people at Monday's meeting in the Champlain School gym helped oppose the original design. "I want to thank you," he said. "Today the project is vastly different."
Not different enough for everyone, though. "Design for today. What do we need today?" asked Amey Radcliffe, a graphic artist who works in the Howard Space building on Pine Street. The parkway will only make Burlington more car-centric, she said, contradicting planning goals to reduce car use.
Some supporters said shoppers and workers heading downtown are frustrated by current congestion on north-south arteries such as Shelburne Road, which is "overtaxed," according to Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association, which favors the Parkway.
Event host AARP lobbies for seniors-friendly transportation projects, which incorporate pedestrian and bike access and also public transit. The Parkway design has changed from a 1960s highway to a multi-modal street, AARP's Marchildon said. "It has earned our support."