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Life Stories: Mark Eldridge 'Cared About the World'

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Published May 25, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Mark and Elizabeth Eldridge - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Mark and Elizabeth Eldridge

At a meeting in mayor Bernie Sanders' office in the mid-1980s, city officials were discussing the Burlington waterfront. The city owned almost no land at the waterfront, yet department heads were considering its future and what might be possible at Burlington's western edge.

Mark Eldridge (August 8, 1943-December 27, 2021), director of planning and zoning, had an idea: What about a floating boathouse, similar to a mobile opera house in Italy that bobbed up and down the coast of the Adriatic Sea? The proposed structure in Burlington, if built on a barge, could move to the site that would become the focus of a waterfront reimagined for public use.

Michael Monte, now CEO of Champlain Housing Trust, recalled that meeting in the mayor's office nearly 40 years ago. At the time, he was assistant director of the Community & Economic Development Office. "The boathouse really was in the context of creating Burlington's waterfront," Monte said.

Peter Clavelle, who would succeed Sanders as mayor, was director of CEDO. He, too, recollected the origin of the boathouse — and what its realization meant for Burlington.

"The idea of reintroducing citizens to Lake Champlain, by the boathouse, it was just genius," Clavelle said. "And Mark deserves much of the credit for hatching that idea and for building support around it."

Burlington Community Boathouse - MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Burlington Community Boathouse

The idea would come to fruition in 1988 with the opening of the Burlington Community Boathouse. It sits on a barge that was pushed from Texas to Burlington by a Lake Champlain Transportation vessel called Miss Piggy.

In the Eldridge family, the Burlington landmark is known as "Daddy's boathouse," said Mark's wife, Nancy Rockett Eldridge. That's what their daughter and son called the structure when they were kids growing up in the New North End.

The Eldridges were together last year at Christmastime, a final gathering of the foursome in their home. The family held a 24-hour vigil by Mark's bedside for a week or so, with a Christmas tree placed at the foot of his bed. Mark died of multiple myeloma on December 27, 2021, Nancy said. He was 78.

"It couldn't have been a better environment to go," she said. "He just didn't want to die, of course."

Mark served as Burlington's director of planning and zoning for two decades, from 1985 to 2005. During his tenure, the city developed and implemented land-use and housing policies that recognized equity, inclusion and affordability as core tenets, according to former colleagues. An ordinance adopted under Mark's leadership, known as inclusionary zoning, requires that developments of a certain size include affordable housing.

From left: Elizabeth, Thomas and Mark Eldridge - COURTESY
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  • From left: Elizabeth, Thomas and Mark Eldridge

Another measure, the condominium conversion ordinance, protects tenants from displacement if their apartment is converted to a condo. Mark was not only an effective and forward-thinking city planner, according to people who worked with him, he was a kind and thoughtful person who stayed above the fray of politics.

"One of the things that makes Burlington a challenging place for a planning director is: We have not had, and still don't have, a consensus about how we should grow and develop as a city," Clavelle said. "The planning director has to deal with that on a daily basis, and Mark did that well."

Mark was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, the youngest of three sons of Elsom and Elizabeth Whitehead Eldridge. His father was an Episcopalian minister, and the family moved around during Mark's childhood. Their steadfast home was a summer place in Heath, Mass., an old farmhouse Mark's family bought in the 1940s. Later, when he, Nancy and their kids lived in Burlington, they would drive — singing along the way — to Heath for summer weekends.

After graduating from high school in St. Louis, Mo., Mark went to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. His creativity and interest in design were on display in the winter of 1965, when the ice sculpture he designed, titled "Fantasauraus," won a first-prize award at Winter Carnival. Marc Efron, a college friend and retired lawyer in Washington, D.C., remembers Mark pulling an all-nighter to construct the piece, with help from his fraternity brothers.

Mark went on to attend graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a master's degree in urban planning. (A proud UNC alumnus, he was "smiling up there" in April, Nancy said, when the Tar Heels beat the Duke University Blue Devils in the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball championship tournament.)

After grad school, Mark joined the U.S. Navy, living and working on a naval ship for four years before embarking on his career in the Boston area. As assistant director of planning for Brookline, Mass., he developed a nationally recognized affordable housing program, called the Equity Transfer Assistance program.

Nancy and Mark Eldridge - COURTESY
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  • Nancy and Mark Eldridge

Nancy and Mark met when she was hired to run that program, fresh out of graduate school at Tufts University. They were married in 1984 and lived in a house on Vermont Street in West Roxbury, Mass. After their home was broken into and vandalized while they were on vacation, the Eldridges decided to leave Boston. Burlington intrigued them, and Mark applied for the director's position in the planning office.

Erhard Mahnke, a longtime affordable housing advocate in Burlington, was on the planning commission and a member of its three-person hiring committee.

"Mark came to us with a really solid reputation for promoting progressive land-use policies, especially around affordable housing," Mahnke said. "That's one of the main reasons we chose to hire Mark."

Two years after he became planning director, Mark's condominium conversion ordinance was enacted in Burlington. Its impact became clear in 1989, when the ordinance saved Northgate Apartments from condo conversion, Monte said, preventing some 1,000 people from losing their homes.

"In the '80s, we coined a term, 'Protect, Preserve and Produce,'" Monte said. "'Produce' was produce more housing. 'Preserve' was preservation of the existing housing. 'Protect' was the protection of tenants and housing resources overall. Mark had a lot to do with the protection and preservation of things."

Meanwhile, Nancy built her own career in housing, with positions that included state director of housing and CEO of Cathedral Square. Mark selected the family's own home: a flat-roofed brick house that Nancy called a "Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff." He had eyed it longingly, telling Nancy that if the house ever went on the market, they'd buy it.

"Over my dead body," she recalled answering. "It looks like my elementary school."

But her husband prevailed, and the family has lived in it for 36 years. Mark placed objects he considered sculpture in the yard, such as a spiral-shaped something-or-other spotted at ReSOURCE and a piece of discarded building material, said his daughter, Elizabeth Eldridge, 32, an epidemiologist in Boston.

From left: Nancy, Thomas and Mark Eldridge - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • From left: Nancy, Thomas and Mark Eldridge

When she was a kid, Elizabeth sometimes went after school to Mark's office on the top floor of what would become the Firehouse Gallery (now BCA Center). She played behind his desk and remembered coloring a rendering of the Moran Plant, a waterfront building "he was really invested in preserving," she said.

In retirement, Mark pursued his interest in green roofs, filled his yard with bird feeders, played piano (skillfully and by ear), and kept up his love of listening to music. A favorite time for him was early June, when musicians would play in the streets during the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.

"I would say he was as passionate about his work at home as he was at work," Elizabeth said. "He just kind of cared about the world."

In 1990, 25 years after graduating from Dartmouth and five years after his move to Burlington, Mark updated his classmates in a Dartmouth alumni publication. He told them about the "interesting change to a small but dynamic city that was being shaken up by the nation's only Socialist mayor, Bernie Sanders." His challenge, Mark wrote, was to "help Burlington maintain its recent designation as one of America's 'most livable' small cities."

He succeeded, according to Mahnke: "Mark is one of the first people I think about when I think about who helped make Burlington the livable city that it is today," he said. "The policies that he helped usher in, the projects that were subject to review while he was director, have literally made the face of Burlington what it is today. Minus the hole," aka the CityPlace Burlington pit.