CityPlace Burlington construction site, pictured last fall
Burlington officials will update the public on the stalled CityPlace mall redevelopment early next week, a consultant for the project said Friday.
Jeff Glassberg is scheduled to meet with the Burlington City Council in executive session on Monday night. He said he expects the city to release a statement providing an update on the situation sometime after that. He does not expect the project's majority owner, Brookfield Asset Management, to attend the meeting nor to help craft the statement.
Glassberg wouldn't elaborate when asked what the statement would say. But the consultant, who has liaised between the parties for the last year, said locals are owed an explanation for why construction on the $250 million, 14-story project has yet to begin.
“They absolutely need to share with the public what is going on,” Glassberg said. “It’s the second week of July. My phone is not ringing off the hook with people complaining about noise and dust from construction. That’s what I expected.”
Three months ago, Will Voegele, Brookfield’s senior vice president of development, told the council that the firm was tabulating construction bids and had signed a term sheet with Bank OZK, formerly Bank of the Ozarks. The agreement is not akin to a finalized loan, Glassberg said.
Voegele subsequently made the rounds to Burlington Neighborhood Planning Assembly meetings, getting chilly receptions from residents who are frustrated with the lack of progress. Indeed, the latest action at the vacant superblock came when crews removed advertisements for the project that rimmed the site — after some contended they were billboards — about a month ago.
Steel beams were delivered to the Cherry Street site last November, but they haven't moved. And Don Sinex, once the face of the massive project, is no longer in charge of the day-to-day operations. As it stands, the Queen City’s infamous hole is still a hole, one that some critics have taken to calling the "CityHole project."
Hard to say when no one’s talking. Voegele did not return multiple requests for comment about the project. Mayor Miro Weinberger didn’t make time to speak with Seven Days about CityPlace this week, declining interview requests, failing to respond to emailed questions and ducking into another meeting immediately following an unrelated press conference on Thursday.
Sinex also declined an interview, referring all questions to Voegele and Glassberg. But as of late last week, even Glassberg was left in the dark. He told Seven Days he didn’t know the status of the bids, but that it “doesn’t take this long” to determine if they came in on target.
“It’s not a great sign,” Glassberg said, adding, “The puzzle pieces haven’t been put together, I don't think.”
Inaction has plagued the project for years. In 2016, Sinex said CityPlace would be operational in January 2019, a target that’s long passed. He’s blamed the city and litigious opponents for not making his deadlines.
The city, meanwhile, has bent to Sinex’s will in efforts to keep the project moving: Last August, a city council majority amended CityPlace’s 46-page development agreement, allowing Sinex to build the project foundation without an executed contract for the building's construction.
Now CityPlace is fast approaching another vital deadline: A construction contract is due by December 31, as per the development agreement, a legally binding document that the parties signed in October 2017. It's a possibility that the sides could renegotiate that deadline, but according to Glassberg, Brookfield is not currently poised to meet the mark.
The construction contract is integral to CityPlace's progress and funding. Without it, Brookfield can't pull the permit to construct the building, let alone its foundation.
“That’s a really important milestone, and we have repeatedly advised [the project owners] of the importance of that date,” Glassberg said. “I’ve been assured it’s no problem, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
Less immediate but still important is a June 2021 deadline for the city to bond for $22 million worth of public infrastructure needed to support the project, paid with tax-increment financing funds.
In November 2016, voters approved using TIF funds to reconnect St. Paul and Pine streets to Cherry and Bank streets, thoroughfares that were lost to the urban renewal mall. Earlier that year, the city lobbied the Vermont legislature to extend TIF deadlines specifically for the CityPlace parcels.
Act 134 codified the ask into law with one huge caveat: Brookfield must submit a $50 million construction contract before that June 2021 deadline or the agreement is moot, explained Megan Sullivan, executive director of the Vermont Economic Progress Council, which oversees parts of the TIF program.
Without the document, “they lose the ability to use TIF funding,” she said.
Burlington would have to find another way to pay, but it doesn’t appear to have one. In a 2016 letter to a legislative committee, Mayor Weinberger wrote, “The city has no other viable or fair financing source” for the project.
“That’s really an enormous concern,” Glassberg said.
Jay Fayette, CEO of general contractor PC Construction, did not respond to interview requests about the contract. Company spokesperson Crystal DelleChiaie referred all questions to Brookfield.
Will Voegele of Brookfield Asset Management
Meanwhile, CityPlace is facing another hurdle. Just over two weeks ago, a Vermont Superior Court judge ruled that a lawsuit filed against the project can move forward. The suit alleges that developers changed parking plans in violation of a settlement agreement from a prior lawsuit.
On Tuesday, CityPlace filed a motion for reconsideration on the matter, but the judge had not yet ruled on it.
Despite all of the unknowns, Glassberg said he remains optimistic that Brookfield is working, albeit behind the scenes, to ensure a project happens.
Whether it looks like the one currently envisioned is another question, he said. Brookfield could feasibly redesign and scale back the project, but depending on how much changes, the developer might have to reapply for a new zoning permit. That takes more time.
For now, when it comes to CityPlace, mum’s the word. David White, former interim Community Economic Development Office director, declined multiple interview requests. And only two city councilors responded this week to phone messages about the topic (two others had full voicemail boxes).
Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said she has no idea what to expect during Monday's closed session. Councilor Ali Dieng (D/P-Ward 7) didn’t either, but noted his constituents are looking for answers.
He suggested that the city should take over the lot because it seems like Sinex’s project was a pipe dream.
“It seems they think the project is too big,” Dieng said. “I don’t think they will be doing anything any time soon.”