The space where Burlington’s landmark Midtown Motel once stood is now an empty lot.
Property owner Jeff Nick tore down the 1950s-era motel last month, hiring a crew trained in asbestos removal to discard the remnants safely. The process took six weeks.
The cordoned-off lot is now filled with gravel, but Nick plans to convert it into a grassy space that he hopes will spur redevelopment of the so-called “gateway block” to the Queen City.
“Hopefully when COVID’s over, everybody can refocus and figure out what should happen on this block,” Nick said, referring to the area contained by Main Street, South Union Street and South Winooski Avenue. “It’s prime even in today’s market.”
Nick and his business partner purchased the motel in 1995 but closed it a decade later when repairs became too costly. They continued to rent out the 14 parking spaces beneath the long, narrow building, which had become a magnet for graffiti.
Nick filed for a permit last summer to tear down the building, but city officials told him the motel was historic and as such, he needed a plan to redevelop the site before proceeding with demolition. Nick wanted to keep the surface parking lot, but officials said that use isn't allowed in the zoning district.
Nick, a real estate broker by day, said he didn’t want to build something that would conflict with the city’s vision for the “gateway block.” Plans call for replacing the motel and adjacent city parking lot with mixed use, multistory buildings and a repurposed Memorial Auditorium.
He also questioned whether the building was truly historic. Yes, the boxy, single-story structure embodied the International Style — a minimalist architectural treatment popular in midcentury America — but it wasn’t listed on the state or national historic registers. A city ordinance, however, says buildings are historic if they’re even eligible for inclusion on those lists.
The stalemate ended when the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation ruled that the motel wasn’t eligible for listing after all. A 44-page report published last summer concluded that while the Midtown was one of many roadside motels that became popular in the 1950s, “it does not relate to the important historic trend of roadside commercial development.”
“As such,” the report says, “it is a singular building that is not associated with an important historic event or trend.”
Nick took the report to the Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, whose members review nominations to the state and national registers. Last September, the body voted 3-2 that the motel was ineligible for listing.
“That was a game-changer in terms of the zoning permit process,” principal city planner Scott Gustin wrote in an email to Seven Days.
With the question of historic significance resolved, Nick’s post-demolition plans only had “to comply with the city’s downtown form code or contain no development at all,” Gustin added.
Nick opted for the latter. He hopes that leaving a blank slate will attract developers to the block, noting that big-box retailers Target and REI were both interested in the past. Nick thinks a redeveloped corner with mixed used buildings — and yes, parking — is just what Burlington needs.
“We’re eager to participate with the city to help move this forward,” he said, adding, “I hope people will see more of an opportunity there than before.”
And while Nick is happy the Midtown is gone, he did save one relic from the rubble. A neon sign that once tempted weary travelers with the promise of color television is now hanging in his Church Street office.