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Harvard Students Offer Winter-City Vision for Burlington

Local Matters


Published June 4, 2008 at 11:09 a.m.

Diagram of Natatorium on Burlington's Waterfront By Monica Franklin
  • Diagram of Natatorium on Burlington's Waterfront By Monica Franklin

David Lee, an adjunct professor of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University, says Vermont's landscape "is as iconic in the American psyche as Manhattan." Maybe so, but it certainly doesn't bring in as many Benjamins. After all, Church Street isn't Fifth Avenue.

But, as destinations go, Burlington may have something going for it that the Big Apple doesn't: Plenty of cold and snow. As it turns out, urban centers in Canada and Scandinavia are using the elements as part of a broader effort to stimulate economic development and civic connectedness. Urban planners call them "winter cities," and they hope the concept will attract frosty-faced shoppers and pedestrians who might not otherwise venture far from the wood stove.

Some of Lee's students from Harvard's Graduate School of Design say Burlington might benefit from a similar strategy to board the "winter city" wagon. Last week, the students in Lee's studio class, "Burlington, Vermont? New Urban Designs for the Downtown Core," presented their ideas for sprucing up the Queen City's built environment to about 50 local residents who gathered at the Waterfront Theater in Burlington.

Among the more concrete suggestions: a pier connecting Cherry Street with the waterfront; an artists' cooperative, flanked by a boardwalk, extending south of Battery Street; a waterfront natatorium-cum-skating rink; and a downtown "winter strassa" street grid featuring tree-lined, permeable streets outfitted with snow-collecting "bioswales." On a more abstract note, Lee advised city planners to pay more attention to "light," "color" and "materiality."

As yet, Burlington has no broad-based approach to marketing the city's wintertime amenities, such as they are. But, in some ways, Burlington already has a "winter city" mindset, said David White, director of planning and zoning for the city. Municipal ordinances encourage builders to incorporate natural shade and wind breaks into landscaping plans, he said, and Burlington is looking into installing permeable pavements - one component of the "winter strassa" concept.

Nonetheless, the waterfront remains pretty much empty half the year, thanks to blustery gusts from Lake Champlain, not to mention the lack of both retail destinations and downtown connectivity. Moreover, although they only spent a weekend exploring town, the Harvard students tapped into several vexing local issues, including Burlington's demonstrated need for public transportation. Another student discovered that it was "almost impossible" to design anything interesting without running into historic-preservation roadblocks.

Case in point: One proposal considered construction of an "elegant and slender" tower near Battery Street in the style of existing structures in Toronto and Vancouver. But students backed off around mid-semester after discovering, as Lee explained, that "if you put a tower on Burlington's waterfront, it better be the best tower that anyone ever saw."

Of course, the students' plans aren't to be interpreted literally, but rather as creative stimulants for the urban-planning process. (Lee asked the Waterfront Theater crowd to think of the students' visit as "having someone else come to your house and play your albums.") In fact, White appreciates that the students weren't familiar with Burlington before showing up here this winter for a two-day visit.

"I think it's really important to have a fresh set of eyes look at the community from this particular perspective," White noted. "We do this everyday, all day long, and sometimes our perspective can be skewed by local politics."

Indeed, John Anderson, a local architect, claims that "Yankee sensitivity" can impede visionary urban design in Burlington. The waterfront has come a long way since then-Mayor Bernie Sanders first whipped it into shape in the 1980s, Anderson said. But he still wishes the area were a year-round, as opposed to a seasonal, attraction.

Like some of Lee's students, Anderson would also like to see the waterfront area better integrated with downtown. Years ago, for example, Anderson proposed saving an old waterfront grain tower and linking the Battery Street corridor with downtown via a ski gondola. Neither proposal was approved.

Anderson, however, remains optimistic. Innovation doesn't have to conflict with historic preservation, he said. In Amsterdam, he pointed out, modern buildings are "gracefully" interspersed with the old ones.

"I don't think we have a problem of not honoring our history," he said. Rather, Burlington is "maybe not feeling daring enough," he explained, "feeling like we have to make old-looking buildings, rather than feeling like we have to confront the new, head on."

Such confrontations of past and present sensibilities can be risky, said Mayor Bob Kiss, who listened quietly to the students' presentations from the back row of the Waterfront Theater. Kiss, who explored the relationship between growth and historic downtowns at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology design seminar in 2006, said that innovative structures could become "icons" that strengthen Burlington's image. If a building is limited to red brick, three stories and four sides, he said, "it might not ever inspire."

As for the students' ideas, Kiss said he was particularly attracted to a natatorium along the waterfront. "I think of Iceland, and the fact they have all those hot springs and stuff," he said. "Whether it would actually work is another story."