Flashback: Did Bernie Sanders Really Save the Burlington Waterfront? | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Flashback: Did Bernie Sanders Really Save the Burlington Waterfront?


Published June 17, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 12, 2019 at 8:40 p.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen

When U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) launched his run for president at Burlington's sun-washed Waterfront Park last month, he claimed the spectacular public setting as a political victory.

"This beautiful place was once an unsightly rail yard that served no public purpose and was an eyesore. As mayor, I worked with the people of Burlington to help turn this waterfront into the beautiful, people-oriented public space it is today," Sanders told the crowd. "We took the fight to the courts, to the legislature and to the people. And we won."

Rick Sharp, standing 10 feet from the stage, found Sanders' statement galling. "I think that history says something different," Sharp said three weeks later in his Burlington office. "If Bernie had had his way, there would be a hotel and condos on the waterfront."

In 1985, Sanders was a strong supporter of a waterfront makeover plan that called for heavy development on the shore of Lake Champlain. Retail stores, condos, offices and a seven-story hotel would have filled what is now Waterfront Park. The so-called Alden Plan also included a large parking garage.

"Instead of doing the announcement there, there would have been 300 luxury condominiums," Sharp said. "It's pretty horrendous what it [would have] looked like."

The plan died after environmentalists, including Sharp, Bea Bookchin and Sandy Baird, launched a determined opposition that helped defeat a pivotal bond vote for the Alden project in December 1985. Sanders had urged the public to vote yes, arguing that it was the best deal the city could expect to redevelop its then-derelict waterfront.

It's true that Sanders pushed for a strong public use of the waterfront before and after Alden was defeated. But his backing of the proposal could have left Burlington with a strikingly different waterfront. Instead of the big boardwalks and open spaces that host festivals and sporting events, the lakefront land could have been dominated by private property and commercial interests.

That's been left out of many media accounts, including a June 2 Nation article that gives Sanders credit for the way the area looks today.

"Thanks to Sanders, the Burlington waterfront now has a community boathouse and other facilities for small boats," the story read. "There's also a sailing center and science center, a fishing pier, an eight-mile bike path, acres of parkland, and public beaches. The commercial development is modest and small-scale."

To Sharp, this version is off base. Way off base. "To say that he saved the waterfront ... The record needs to be set straight," Sharp said.

Sanders and his campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But people who were part of Sanders' mayoral administration in the 1980s, including Michael Monte, say Sharp's conclusions are the ones that are off base.

A rendering shows the 1980s waterfront development proposal known as the Alden Plan. - SOURCE: BURLINGTON DEPARTMENT OF PLANNING AND ZONING
  • source: Burlington Department of Planning and Zoning
  • A rendering shows the 1980s waterfront development proposal known as the Alden Plan.

"Rick Sharp is fighting a very old battle. The Alden Plan was flawed, but not horrific," said Monte, who worked for the Community & Economic Development Office under Sanders and later became its director. "It had a park and a boathouse and generous public space. Regardless, it was Bernie who pivoted and said, 'Let's do this differently.' And always, always said that the waterfront should be people-oriented."

John Franco, who was assistant city attorney under mayor Sanders, says Sharp's position on the waterfront is dead wrong. "That is very much old ultra-left revisionist nonsense from Rick and others who have spent a long time trying to take credit for the waterfront."

Franco and the Sanders administration played a key role winning a landmark 1989 lawsuit that went to the Vermont Supreme Court. The decision, based on the public trust doctrine, helped the city to acquire more than 60 acres of waterfront land from the Central Vermont Railway.

The record is also clear that after Alden, both Sanders and his successor as mayor, Peter Clavelle, worked persistently to build many of the public amenities now in place, including the community boathouse in 1988 and the 10.5-acre Waterfront Park and boardwalk in 1991.

But in a political compromise that now seems baffling, both men were on board with Alden, which could have sabotaged much of what was later accomplished.

Although it wasn't always beautiful, Burlington's waterfront has long been a powerful economic engine. In the 1800s, it was one of the busiest lumberyards in the world. When the industrialists needed more land, they created it. The question of who owned that "fill" shaped the evolution of the waterfront.

In the 1980s, Sharp, a Georgetown Law grad, was a young attorney at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Growing up in Bellows Falls, he felt his first pangs of environmentalism watching the Connecticut River change color depending on which dye the paper companies dumped into it.

Sharp was an early supporter of creating the Burlington Bike Path, and he believed Sanders was an ally. "I was one of the 10 people who put him over the top in 1981," Sharp said of Sanders' historic but razor-thin mayoral victory. "'No enclaves for the rich on the Burlington waterfront,'" he said, paraphrasing the candidate's rhetoric at the time. "That's why I voted for him."

Sanders had also joined loud opposition at the time to a proposal by Burlington shopping center developer Tony Pomerleau to refashion the jumble of rail lines and oil tanks at the foot of the city into high-rise condo towers and a pricey hotel. This waterfront plan, which predated Alden, subsequently died.

But a few years later, Sharp and other Sanders supporters were surprised to see the freshly minted mayor urging city residents to approve the Alden Plan and to back a $6 million bond to help pay for the public amenities and infrastructure associated with the proposal.

A Burlington Free Press article headlined "Sanders Denies Sellout to Alden on Waterfront" included a comment from Bookchin, a longtime Burlington activist and member of the Green Party at the time, accusing the mayor of an about-face. The story, by Mark Johnson, now host of a morning news show on WDEV, quoted Bookchin as saying that the "project is everything Bernie Sanders said it would not be."

In the same story, Sanders retorted that failure to win an $18 million federal grant had forced the city to compromise. The Alden proposal offered fewer public amenities than the city originally hoped for, but they were still significant: a community boathouse, a section of bike path and a promenade along the lake.

"If we were fighting for condos and hotels, we wouldn't have wasted our time. The question is public amenities and how do we build them without increasing property taxes," Sanders said in the article. He argued that his administration got as much as it could from the Alden developer and that they were not "miracle workers."

"We feel we pushed him as far as we could go, and we feel we got significant concessions," Sanders said.

Sanders campaigned vigorously for Alden. So did his young community development director, Clavelle. The primary developer behind Alden, Paul Flinn, also pushed to get the public on board.

In another Free Press story published shortly before the bond vote, Flinn said the bond was the only way to fix the blighted, largely idle waterfront.

Sharp recalled a pitched political battle in anticipation of the bond vote. He said the Sanders administration tried to keep him from speaking at neighborhood planning assembly meetings in each of the city's wards. His relationship with Sanders grew so strained that the mayor crossed the street when he saw Sharp coming, according to Sharp.

The bond faced headwinds. Approval would have been a step in authorizing a tax increment-financing program to pay for waterfront improvements. This approach, which Burlington has subsequently employed, finances infrastructure upgrades by borrowing on future tax revenues for a period of years.

The Burlington School Board concluded the TIF could potentially deprive the schools of tax revenue. As a result, the board came out in opposition shortly before the vote — which Sharp thinks helped sink the bond. In the end, a majority of voters supported it, but not the required two-thirds majority. The Alden Plan faded, and Sanders pushed more vigorously for a public-oriented makeover.

Clavelle recalled that back in the day, the Alden plan seemed like a bold, mixed-use proposal. But after its defeat, it was clear that more open space and parkland were desired, he said. While many people contributed to what the waterfront is today, Sanders played a crucial and central role, Clavelle said. "His vision and his tenacity is undeniable," he said.

Baird, a Burlington attorney, onetime Green Party candidate for mayor and Alden opponent, offered a slightly different interpretation. "They were good losers," she said of the Sanders administration and its realization that people wanted more public space on the waterfront. "We won, and so they went on to basically do, I think, what the people wanted."

Sanders supported Alden because the city needed money, she said. But she gives him, Clavelle and Franco credit for shaping the waterfront into what it is today. Rick Sharp and the Alden opponents deserve credit, too, Baird said.

All along, Sharp and other opponents of the Alden plan had argued that much of the waterfront land was restricted to public use. The gist of the public trust doctrine argument was that the water belongs to the people and therefore infill of water — such as the Burlington lakefront — does, too.

The Sanders administration had been arguing on behalf of the city's rights under the public trust doctrine as well. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of Burlington's claim to the land in the landmark 1989 decision. The fact that no buildings were standing on the waterfront made it easier for the court to rule strongly in the public's favor, Sharp said.

The ruling had another effect. As Sharp explained, by constraining private development, it made railroad-controlled property much less valuable and therefore affordable for the city to purchase.

Over the following years, the public got Waterfront Park, the Community Sailing Center, a fishing pier, a skate park and a science museum. Forty acres of land on the northern section of the parcel were preserved, their fate left to future generations to decide. Expensive condos did eventually get built, but on the east side of Lake Street and up against an existing hill. That big parking garage, which would have formed a concrete block intruding into panoramic lake views? It never sprouted.

These days, Sharp runs Burlington Segway, which offers waterfront tours on the standup gizmos. He and his wife live in Colchester and offer paragliding, snow tubing and other recreation there. They once owned 40 units of rental property in Burlington but have trimmed their holdings to about five units, including the house where Sharp lived in the 1980s.

He remains active in the debate about waterfront uses, now arguing for a small stretch of the bike path to be relocated from the east to the west side of the railroad tracks near the Lake Champlain Ferry Dock Marina so users don't have to ride over bumpy railroad tracks. Sharp walks with a cane as a result of a paragliding accident in Mexico in the 1990s that nearly killed him.

Sharp likes much of what Sanders stands for, and he'll probably vote for him in the presidential primary. But he still wants to hear the candidate say the Alden Plan was a mistake, and he believes the citizens of Burlington should know why their waterfront looks the way it does.

Said Sharp: "It was only because a small group of people stood up and said no."