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Growing Pains: Burlington Progressives Clash Over Development


  • Tim Newcomb

Ted Wimpey left Athens, Ga., for Burlington, Vt., in the late 1980s because the city's socialist mayor, Bernie Sanders, intrigued him. He quickly fell in with a nascent political party called the Progressives.

Nearly three decades later, Wimpey announced that he was severing ties with the group. "I now categorically reject and deny an[y] such association. I am an independent progressive pure and simple," he wrote in a brief Facebook post earlier this month.

His decision is especially surprising because his wife is the highest-ranking Progressive official in Burlington — city council President Jane Knodell.

Wimpey, who works as a housing advocate, later explained to Facebook friends: "The effectively anti-development position of the Party with regard to the Burlington Town Center development is the final straw for me."

Progressives were divided in the heated, preelection debate over how to redevelop Burlington's outmoded mall. Knodell, former Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle and former city councilor Brian Pine actively encouraged local residents to pass two ballot items that clear the way for developer Don Sinex to build up to 14 stories and for the city to restore two streets and improve others using $21.8 million in tax increment financing.

Last Tuesday, a majority of Burlington voters agreed with them — but it wasn't a landslide.

Opponents, including the leader of the local party chapter, have signaled they won't give up trying to stop the project. It's been a months-long battle. In August, Burlington Progressives issued a blistering statement that listed 22 grievances against it. Titled "Burlington Is Still Not for Sale," it accused the city of ignoring public input and caving to the developer's demands.

Burlington Progressive Party chair Charles Winkleman later appeared in a newspaper ad against the project, paid for by the Coalition for a Livable City, a network of activists that has led the opposition movement.

Progressive Councilor Max Tracy tried unsuccessfully to pass an amendment that would require Sinex to make 25 percent of the project's housing affordable — 5 percent more than required. That other Progressives were willing to accept anything less has "been a real disappointment to me," he said.

Tracy suggested there's a "generational" component to the divide on this particular issue between old-guard pro-growth Progs from the Clavelle era and newer recruits such as himself, Winkleman and Burlington City Councilor Selene Colburn "who have been, for the most part, opposed." Colburn voted against the zoning change and in favor of the TIF request. Sara Giannoni voted for both ballot items but also expressed concern about insufficient affordable housing.

One exception to Tracy's theory is Steve Goodkind, who came to work for Sanders in 1981 and ran for mayor on the Progressive ticket last year. A loud voice for the Coalition for a Livable City, the former public works director has criticized the scale and design of the mall project and suggested the increase in downtown office space would have a detrimental environmental effect by bringing more commuters into the city.

Although Knodell endorsed Goodkind when he ran for mayor, now she's supporting the efforts of Mayor Miro Weinberger and Democratic councilors.

"I think people within the Progressive Party agree on the ... importance of addressing income inequality and making sure we have an economy that works for everyone, but what this project is flushing out is, we have different views on how to get there," said Knodell. "As a Progressive, I've tried to make the case to other Progressives that this project is good for working people because of the permanent affordable housing and also because of the construction ... and other jobs."

Sinex plans to build 274 housing units. Burlington's zoning ordinance requires 20 percent, or about 55 units, to be affordable. At the city's request, he's agreed to pay construction workers a livable wage, although no similar guarantee applies to any permanent positions associated with the development.

Knodell said she voted against Tracy's amendment to raise the requirement to 25 percent because she was concerned it would kill the project and no new affordable units would be built. Allowing the project to go forward will spur economic activity and expand the city's tax base, benefiting all residents, she argued.

Pine, a former Progressive city councilor and former housing director for Burlington's Community & Economic Development Office, said increasing the housing supply should help reduce real estate costs across the income spectrum.

Clavelle, who recently returned to Burlington after a five-year stint abroad in Albania, made the case that dense downtown development is more in line with the party's commitment to protecting the environment. "Growth and development in the city makes much more sense than developing the cornfields and cow pastures," he said, adding that, "Some of us feel that development that is sustainable is in everybody's interests."

This is not the first time Progressives have clashed over growth. "When it comes to development issues, Progressives have never spoken with one voice," said Pine.

When Sanders was mayor, he supported the infamous Alden Plan — which would have put condos and a hotel on the waterfront — to the dismay of some Burlington lefties. The plan failed in a 1985 citywide vote.

Clavelle, who succeeded Sanders, found resistance from within his own party when in 2000 he put forth his Legacy Action Plan — a municipal blueprint that would serve as a precursor to PlanBTV. One of the plan's most controversial proposals was to make Burlington bigger through "carefully planned growth," meaning more people and more development. Knodell, who helped write the plan, often calls herself a "Peter Clavelle Progressive" — a nod to their shared interest in promoting development.

One significant difference between the debate then and now: "That was just an abstract plan; this could actually happen," said Knodell.

"The fact that everyone is not marching in lockstep is fine, but the fact that the debate has been as testy as it has been, I think, is unfortunate," said Clavelle.

Accusations flew the week before Election Day. Knodell ripped the Coalition for a Livable City after ran a story about alleged campaign finance violations committed by the group's political action committee.

"It is unacceptable that the Coalition for a Livable City is violating Vermont campaign finance law and has left the public with no way of knowing what private or political interests are fueling their well-funded campaign of distortions and misinformation," she wrote.

The PAC's treasurer? Goodkind. He said he was puzzled and disappointed by the public rebuke from a fellow Prog, whom he considers a friend.

On November 4, Tracy, Colburn and independent councilor Sharon Bushor put out a letter saying the zoning change "emerged from a process void of compromise" and "will lower the percentage of affordable housing that developers are required to build."

Knodell shot back with a Front Porch Forum post forcefully contesting both points.

She is also critical of the city Progs' decision to issue a statement, which was made after a vote by the steering committee.

"Because the party took a position, the division within the party is very evident," said Knodell, who had expressed support for the project before the statement came out.

Pine also said he was "uncomfortable with the statement" because he worried it would "have the effect of potentially alienating not only Progressives, but I think it would put the party at odds with the consensus of Burlington."

Wimpey is one of those alienated Progs.

"There is a growing knee-jerk antidevelopment reaction building, and it's cast in terms of the little guy against the big capitalist developer, so it looks like a Progressive position," Wimpey said during an interview last week. "To me, it's more of a Progressive position to support dense development."

He added, "The Progressive leadership are maybe beginning to marginalize themselves," which might make it harder for the party to retake the mayor's office. Knodell hasn't ruled out a future run.

Tracy says the opposition has been unfairly characterized as antidevelopment, arguing that he and others would have supported the mall redevelopment if Sinex had been willing to make concessions such as increasing the affordable housing.

Wimpey claims Tracy's demands are unreasonable and have the same effect as being antidevelopment. Either way, it's clear that a particular group of Progressives has a higher threshold for supporting development.

State party director Emma Mulvaney-Stanak isn't worried. "I think what that shows is great democracy and diversity of opinion within the party structure," she said.

Progs have weathered more contentious disagreements in the past, she said — on local issues such as Burlington Telecom and statewide ones like ridgetop wind turbines. Mulvaney-Stanak, a Burlington resident, voted "no" on both redevelopment questions, largely because she thought the city administration gave too much deference to the developer and too little to the public.

Progressives currently have four members on the Burlington council. When the two independents and one Republican vote with them, the eclectic coalition can overpower the five Democratic councilors. But if the dispute among Progs persists, it could create fissures in their unified front.

There should be a strong incentive for the party to reunite: The council has yet to finalize the "community benefits" that Sinex will provide as part of the project. And it still needs to sign a development agreement with Sinex. Knodell said she hopes to negotiate for more workforce housing.

"There are still a lot of ways to maximize public good for the project," noted Colburn.

In the coming months, the council is also expected to review Burlington's inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires developers to build units for low-income residents. Those who argue that the rules are too onerous will almost certainly push to relax them. "It's going to be really important for us to come together in order to advocate for strong inclusionary zoning," said Giannoni.

If history is any indication, unanimous agreement is unlikely. The party's latest internecine dustup "is not the first time, and it won't be the last time, that Progressives have disagreed about how to best manage growth and development in Burlington," Colburn said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Growing Pains: Burlington Progressives Clash Over Development"