The City of Burlington is taking the developers of the long-stalled CityPlace Burlington project to court.
In a lawsuit filed in Vermont Superior Court earlier this week, the city alleges that mall developers Don Sinex and Brookfield Asset Management violated a development agreement by failing to build the project on an agreed timeline. The city announced the lawsuit in a press release on Thursday.
The filing says developers had promised to continue construction on the new project "without interruption" once the former Burlington Town Center mall was torn down. The city says construction began when the mall was demolished in 2017, while the developers have argued that construction never started.
"Anyone who has looked at the construction site in the last two years knows that’s absurd," Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a statement. "We’re not going to let them get away with it."
Sinex first announced plans to redevelop the mall in 2014 and eventually proposed 14-story towers filled with a mix of housing, retail and office space. He's since missed countless deadlines to bring the project to fruition.
Brookfield became majority owners in January 2019 and, earlier this year, promised to build a scaled-down version of Sinex's original plan by 2023. Conceptual drawings called for two 10-story buildings with apartments, shops and a hotel.
"While repeatedly assuring the City of its intentions to re-start construction, Brookfield never did," the city's filing says.
Weinberger threatened to sue the developers in July, after Brookfield announced it intended to abandon the project and hand the reins to Sinex and his firm, Devonwood Investors. In mid-August, Sinex told the city that he'd formed a new partnership with three local businessmen who were eager to get the project going. Weinberger was unswayed, and on August 25, the Burlington City Council gave the green light to sue.
On September 3, Sinex informed Weinberger that the partners were dissolving the development agreement with the city. On September 8, developers filed suit against the city, seeking a court order "that BTC has no further obligations to the City." The city counter-sued the same day, arguing that one party cannot "unilaterally terminate the agreement."
The city has also asked the court to compel the developers to reconstruct Pine and St. Paul streets and build sidewalks, street lighting and other improvements on parts of Cherry and Bank streets that abut the project. Voters had approved spending $21.8 million in tax-increment financing dollars to pay for the upgrades. The city argues in the filing that developers must now foot the bill because of the delays.
The lawsuit also seeks punitive damages "in an amount to be determined at trial," plus attorney fees.
In his statement Thursday, Weinberger said the city is open to negotiating with the developers to restart the project, but only based on the existing development agreement. The mayor later spoke to reporters at a press conference.
"What we are doing is saying, 'Make good on the agreement you made with us. Our patience is over.' You have a legal obligation to do this. Go do it,'" he said.
Weinberger said the city never wanted to sue but that this route is "the best chance of getting action on this site in the near future."
"It's been two years since construction ceased on the site, and we've given the developer every opportunity to move this project forward. They have not done so," he said. "We are now taking steps to protect the city's interest and create a structured manner to compel action."
Brookfield declined to comment. Sinex did not immediately return a request for comment.