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Update: Is Burlington Ready to Grow ... Up?


Published December 30, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy of the Community & Economic Development Office
  • Rendering of the mall project

A $200 million plan to rebuild Burlington Town Center — the Queen City's aging mall — is forcing Vermont's largest city to envision its future. The construction of two 14-story towers would require changes to the 105-foot height limit now in place downtown. At 150 feet, they'd significantly alter Burlington's low-rise skyline — and rank as the tallest buildings in Vermont. With 300 units of housing, they'd also begin to relieve the city's housing shortage.

Both the city council and planning commission would have to sign off on the proposal from developer Don Sinex. In advance of that, reactions were mixed: Some thought it was terrible idea; others called it progress.

"I think well done, it would enhance the character of Burlington," said Peter Owens, director of Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office. "Poorly done, it would be a disaster."

UPDATE: Sinex hasn't formally submitted his mall redo plan to the Burlington Development Review Board — instead, he subjected it to a public planning process.

There's been relatively little discussion about tower height in those meetings so far, but some city residents have expressed their concerns through other means, said Jane Knodell, the Progressive president of the Burlington City Council who also serves on the mall Development Agreement Public Advisory Committee.

The goal is for the towers to fit in with the architecture and feel of the city, while allowing for several hundred units of new housing in Burlington's dense, walkable downtown, Sinex said. Knodell said she'd support the height increase if the public benefits of the project meet her goals for better street connectivity, affordable housing and a revitalized retail experience.

Some aspects of the proposal have changed already. The new parking garage will be above ground, not underground, due to cost, Sinex said. But it will be on the interior of the project, hidden from view. The most up-to-date design for the project will be presented at 5:30 p.m. January 5 in the mall's lower level. The public is invited to look at posters and weigh in.

City voters will have their say via a future ballot question about tax-increment financing for mall infrastructure. "In practice it will be almost like a vote up or down on the whole project," Knodell said.

But plans for a March vote have been dropped, and it's unclear whether the question will go on the November 2016 ballot.

Sinex predicts it will take most of next year to get through the permitting process. If approved, he hopes to build the project in 2017 and replace the mall with a more modern, mixed-use development.

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