The Grove Street Apartments exist only on paper, but already a developer’s plan to build up to 300 rental units on Burlington’s eastern edge is generating controversy.
S.D. Ireland intends to close its concrete production facility on Grove Street and redevelop the 30-acre site on the south bank of the Winooski River into one of the largest housing complexes ever built in Burlington. Most of the one- and two-bedroom apartments would be rented at market rates. But as many as 45 units would have to be leased at “affordable” prices in keeping with the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires at least 15 percent of residences in new private developments be set aside for low-income renters.
The Grove Street Apartments project was set to make its public debut at the Ward 1 Neighborhood Planning Assembly meeting scheduled for November 14. S.D. Ireland anticipates presenting plans to the city’s Development Review Board on December 4. The proposal will then wend its way through a multi-faceted permitting process that must include a review in accordance with the state’s Act 250 land-use law.
Construction would likely not get under way until 2014 at the earliest. Patrick O’Brien, whose South Burlington-based development firm is handling the permitting process on S.D. Ireland’s behalf, says the complex would include between 200 and 300 apartments. But O’Brien says it’s too soon to specify the exact number of proposed units or their prices. “That’s to be determined as we go forward,” O’Brien says.
Mayor Miro Weinberger says he’ll reserve judgment on the Grove Street project until the review process unfolds. But if no major impediment emerges, Weinberger adds that he will support the development.
“Lack of housing, particularly rental housing, is one of our biggest problems,” the mayor comments. The shortage “means that all of us are paying more for housing than we should, relative to our incomes. The impact is most severe on those least able to pay.”
Burlington’s rental vacancy rate is among the lowest in the nation and lack of space to build new housing is one of the primary factors keeping it that low. With fewer choices, tenants end up paying relatively high rents for apartments that are often in substandard condition.
Erhard Mahnke, a Progressive-aligned former city councilor for Ward 1, agrees “there’s a critical need for rental housing in Burlington.” That’s not a surprising assessment from someone who has worked as a low-income housing advocate for the past 25 years. What may be surprising, however, is Mahnke’s strong opposition to the Grove Street project.
Emphasizing that he is speaking only as a private citizen and only about a preliminary plan, Mahnke warns that the envisioned size of the S.D. Ireland development will “overwhelm” the neighborhood where he’s lived for nearly 30 years. The streets adjoining Schmanska Park are home to mostly lower-middle-class residents, who tend to be renters rather than owners, Mahnke says. It’s a community that’s been “under siege for many years” from a combination of aircraft noise and motor vehicle traffic, he remarks. In addition to concrete trucks and employee cars traveling to and from the S.D. Ireland works, large numbers of commuters pass through the neighborhood en route to Colchester Avenue or Williston Road.
O’Brien says the addition of car traffic associated with hundreds of new housing units will be largely offset by the subtraction of Ireland’s trucks and the private vehicles of the roughly 240 plant workers. “It’s a win-win scenario,” O’Brien suggests, adding that Grove Street would see major improvements as part of the deal.
O’Brien notes that S.D. Ireland intends to consolidate its operations at the S.T. Griswold facility on Williston’s Industrial Parkway that it acquired in 2009. The Grove Street site has been used as a yard for contractors and as a concrete-mixing facility, O’Brien says.
Its industrial uses raise concerns about pollution at the site, Mahnke warns. He recalls that the city carried out a “massive environmental enforcement action” against S.D. Ireland several years ago relating to contamination from holding ponds. The site borders the Winooski River and is near Centennial Brook, listed by the state as a “compromised waterway,” Mahnke adds.
Much of the land is unsuitable for development owing to steep slopes and filled areas that might not support construction, he continues. Part of the site had been used as an illegal dump until the city shut it down in the 1980s, Mahnke points out.
“Erhard Mahnke is right about the environmental issues,” developer O’Brien concedes. Much of the land cannot be built upon due to “environmental sensitivities,” he says.
Even so, the housing project could total up to 300 units because city regulations allow for construction of 16.75 units per acre on land being converted from commercial to residential use, O’Brien notes.
He says S.D. Ireland, which will develop the project and retain ownership of it, will have no trouble filling however many units it eventually builds. “This is going to be the go-to place for rental apartments in Burlington,” O’Brien predicts. Tenants will be attracted, he says, not only by the availability of new units but also by amenities planned for the project, including an outdoor swimming pool, vegetable gardens and hiking trails leading to the Winooski River. An outdoor skating rink might be built as well, O’Brien adds.
Brian Pine, the housing coordinator in the city’s Community and Economic Development Office, observes that controversy is to be expected for a project of this scope — or for any development of more than a few units in Burlington.
“A large project automatically generates opposition because we are a built-out city, Pine says. “A development is inevitably going to be someone’s neighbor, unlike in a rural area where there may not be any people close by.”
But Pine doesn’t worry about anyone getting steamrolled by the project. “The good thing is we have a process in Burlington that gives a voice to the rights of a property owner as well as to neighbors,” he says, “so we’ll see how that plays out in this case.”