- Matthew Thorsen
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has repeatedly said the city should grow by building “in-fill” housing near its downtown. But the mayor is learning that won’t necessarily be easy, with a project by his own development company providing a case study.
Neighbors of the Packard Lofts apartments on North Avenue are stepping up their criticism as the project nears completion. About 30 neighbors turned out last week for what amounted to a gripe session focused on a representative of the Hartland Group, the development company Weinberger cofounded long before he became mayor.
Diana Carlisle and Jim Inman hosted neighbors in their Lakeview Terrace living room, about 100 yards from the project site, which, like all properties on the west side of that street, affords spectacular views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.
Many of those present aimed complaints at Justin Dextradeur, who is managing the Packard Lofts project on behalf of the Hartland Group. Dextradeur proved a resilient punching bag, responding politely, though at times incompletely, to the neighbors’ multiple criticisms. “The transition from low to higher density is always difficult,” he observed drily around the halfway point of a two-hour meeting.
The neighbors’ biggest beef: Hartland Group had pitched Packard Lofts as owner-occupied condominiums since the project’s inception nearly a decade ago, before deciding sometime last year it would rent the 25 units as apartments instead. To many, the change felt like a bait and switch that could negatively impact their lakeside enclave.
Dextradeur explained that the decision to switch to rentals — reported by Seven Days in December but not conveyed by the Hartland Group to the project’s neighbors — resulted from difficulties the project encountered in obtaining financing. “Banks are still reluctant to lend to large new condo developments,” Dextradeur said. “Banks see rentals as a much safer investment.”
The Packard Lofts units — 22 with two bedrooms and three with three bedrooms — will be available only to renters “for the foreseeable future,” Dextradeur added. The Hartland Group does intend to sell the apartments eventually, he said.
A few Lakeview Terrace residents suggested that renters would be less likely to maintain the property than would owners. “There’s a lot of literature showing that ownership produces better upkeep,” one meeting attendee said.
Phil Lavigne, who lives a short distance from Packard Lofts, expressed fear that the project could turn into “student housing.” He also warned about sanitation issues, saying the construction site resembles a “pig pen,” with cigarette butts and pizza boxes littering the street near his home.
Three of the units with lake views — all of which “have been spoken for,” according to Dextradeur — will rent for $2400 a month. The remaining apartments are being advertised at rents ranging from $1650 to $2300, depending on their size and number of bedrooms. The five smallest apartments will rent for “affordable” rates in keeping with the terms of the city’s inclusionary-zoning ordinance. Only tenants meeting income-eligibility standards will be able to rent the two-bedroom apartments priced at $836.
Two women attending the Lakeview Terrace meeting objected to the notion that tenants are less conscientious about maintenance than owners. Meara McGinnis and Kira Schmiedl have both rented on Lakeview Terrace. “I’m having a bad reaction” to the portrayals of renters as irresponsible, McGinnis told the gathering. Schmiedl added, “If I had a friend who asked about moving into Packard Lofts, I’d say, ‘Don’t do it. You won’t be welcomed.’”
The meeting place served as an alternative to the virtual venue for complaints about Packard Lofts: Front Porch Forum, the online email exchange where neighbors have been sharply critical of a project some liken to a “cruise ship.” Many neighbors are chagrined at the size of the 50,000-square-foot residential project, including garage, being built on a corner lot of less than three-quarters of an acre.
Built as a small Packard automobile showroom in 1923, the original building was enlarged to include a warehouse that would later be used by April Cornell, the women’s clothing chain. Weinberger’s Hartland Group, which he formed with developer Chuck Lief in 2003, won permission to build twice the number of units that would normally be allowed on the site based on two criteria: conversion from commercial to residential and “adaptive-reuse” of an existing structure.
Some neighbors have characterized the adaptive-reuse provision as another bait and switch, noting that developers tore down the showroom and warehouse, leaving none of the original building standing other than two brick walls.
Another concern: increased traffic and parking on Lakeview Terrace and nearby streets. Packard Lofts will include 39 sheltered parking spaces, five of which are to be reserved for use by a café that will occupy the project’s North Avenue side. One person at last week’s meeting calculated that the building’s tenants are likely to have a total of more than 50 cars, meaning that several will have to be parked on the street.
Dextradeur said it’s unlikely that every occupant of Packard Lofts will own a car, adding that traffic-calming “bump-outs” will be installed at the corner of Berry Street and Lakeview Terrace. And he noted in a subsequent email message that the 39-space allocation had been judged adequate in reviews by four city and state bodies, including the Vermont Supreme Court.
The nature of the café prompted skepticism on the part of some neighbors. Dextradeur said the Hartland Group is in negotiations with two prospective operators of the space, but he declined to identify either. Asked whether the café would serve alcohol, Dextradeur said he didn’t know but pointed out that coffee shops such as Muddy Waters in Burlington do serve beer.
Aesthetics were at issue as well in last week’s face-off. One participant wanted to know whether there were standards for window coverings in Packard Lofts, warning — half-jokingly — that some tenants might hang “Budweiser towels” that would be visible from Lakeview Terrace. Dextradeur said plain white window shades would be required.
The meeting wasn’t entirely hostile.
Chris Boffa, who will work as property manager of Packard Lofts once its first tenants move in sometime in the next two months, said he has learned from managing 1200 rental units in Vermont and New York that regular communication between tenants and homeowner neighbors is essential. “When things don’t work well it’s because communication isn’t happening,” Boffa said.
Dextradeur noted that last week’s gathering marked the first time he had been invited to confer with a group of Packard Loft neighbors. “I don’t want this to be a one-time event,” he added.
Christian Campbell, a Lakeview Terrace resident, told attendees that while “the history sucks” in regard to the Hartland Group’s dealings with neighbors, it’s essential to let that discontent recede into the past.
“We don’t even know that there’s a problem yet,” Campbell said. “I don’t want this to be an us versus them situation.”
Weinberger, for his part, defends Packard Lofts as a positive contribution to the neighborhood and to the entire city.
“I am proud of my work prior to taking office crafting a project that is now bringing substantial, long-sought investment to the Old North End and creating 25 new homes in a city with a chronic shortage of housing,” the mayor commented on Tuesday in an email message.