BURLINGTON - Conflicting conceptions of community development are colliding in the Old North End, with landlords and Progressives arrayed on one side and historic-preservation advocates dug in on the other.
The flashpoint is the potential listing of some 400 homes as historic properties. A seven-member citizens' advisory council was due to decide, on Nov. 21, whether to ask the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation to confer that designation.
Deeming a set of houses "historic" might seem an unobjectionable move. "It's largely an honorary thing," says Sue Jamele, a division official who oversees site and structure surveys such as the one carried out in the Old North End earlier this year. "It's a way of expressing community pride."
Several parts of Burlington, including North St., are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Such a citation makes an area eligible for federal funding of preservation initiatives, and helps localities protect buildings considered significant to a neighborhood's history and character.
In addition, "historic preservation is a very important economic development tool," says Mary O'Neil, the city's preservation planner. She notes that the listing of North St. as a historic district served as "the doorway for the federal money" that covered most of the cost of resuscitating the Old North End's main artery.
But some neighborhood homeowners complain that the Burlington Planning Department's design-review process involves highly restrictive interpretations of what alterations are permissible within a historic district. "The amount of blowback from the Old North End is getting pretty serious," observes Michael Monte, head of the city's Community and Economic Development Office. CEDO has long been active in efforts to upgrade the housing stock and to promote job opportunities in Burlington's least affluent neighborhood.
Prohibitions against certain types of renovation are serving to intensify gentrification pressures, warns Bill Bissonette, who owns about 150 apartments in the Old North End. "Rents will rise, the more costs you bring to the table," he says.
Bissonette cites the example of a home he owns at the corner of North and Murray streets. He wanted to replace the building's 120-year-old wooden siding with an engineered material known as Hardiboard. "It's a very attractive product" that would cut his maintenance costs in half by reducing the need for periodic repaintings, Bissonette says.
The home is subject to the design-review process, however, and city planners have ruled that Hardiboard was not an acceptable form of siding within the historic district. Bissonette is appealing that decision.
Similarly, design-reviewers denied Josephine Turner permission to demolish five garages on properties she owns on Elmwood Ave. "They look fine from the front," says Turner, adding that the decades-old structures are actually close to collapsing.
The cost of hiring engineers, and an attorney to contest the city's decision is threatening to drive her into bankruptcy, contends Turner, a 70-year-old Williston resident. "It's like living in Russia," she grumbles. "You're not allowed to do anything with your property." Turner says her lawyer is negotiating an agreement with the city that may allow her to tear down three or four of the five garages.
The pending addition of hundreds of homes to the state's historic register worries Old North End property owners. They acknowledge that the state listing by itself doesn't result in any new rules governing exterior alterations. But Bissonette recalls that he and other landlords were told eight years ago that North Street's historic-district designation would have no effect on their properties. "And look what's happened," he says.
"Being on the list doesn't alone impose conditions," adds Monte. "But how local boards interpret what's allowed becomes the critical thing, as well as a source of potential conflict."
O'Neil suggests that Old North End homeowners may be overreacting to a designation that would help preserve a "particular community identity that most Old North End residents do want to retain.
"It's always a problem that some people see preservation as a diminution of their property rights," O'Neil says. Burlington strives to protect its many historic resources, she says, adding, "It's true that you can't swing a dead cat without hitting something historic in Burlington."
O'Neil has little sympathy for those who "feel they're being singled out because they haven't maintained their properties and will thus be denied a demolition permit. When someone applies to demolish a building within a national historic district, it is a matter of great concern," she adds.
Tim Ashe, a Progressive city councilor representing part of the Old North End, sides with irked property owners. Listing 400 neighborhood homes on the state historic register would be "highly unreasonable," in Ashe's estimation.
"Historic preservation is laudable, but it's only one of several competing goals," says Ashe. "Our highest priority needs to be protecting residents from unhealthy and unsafe housing units. If historic designation doesn't move us in that direction, we shouldn't accept it."
Ashe adds that he is researching the city's zoning ordinances to determine whether the City Council may be able to block the state designation.