- South view (top) and east view (bottom) of the proposed Packard Lofts
Miro Weinberger wants everyone to know: He is not “The Donald.”
“People think of Donald Trump when they hear you’re a developer,” Burlington mayoral candidate Weinberger says of the job title the local media has bestowed upon him. But unlike the Republican builder of casinos and luxe cribs for the 1 percent, “my whole career has been about equity issues and green building,” says the Democrat who wants to lead Burlington.
“People shouldn’t be scared of my candidacy, thinking I want big changes in historic neighborhoods,” Weinberger adds during an hourlong interview in the office of his development firm, the Hartland Group, on College Street near the corner of Hungerford Terrace.
But at least a few residents of one of those historic — and expensive — neighborhoods do view a proposed Hartland Group project as Trumpian in the Burlington context.
“I’m not opposed to having housing here, but I’m very concerned about the size of what he wants to do,” St. Michael’s College professor and poet Greg Delanty says of the proposed 25-unit condo complex that Weinberger has been trying to build for nine years at 237 North Avenue. The nondescript, white brick building, of which the project would make “adaptive reuse,” has sat empty for the past couple of years.
Named for an automobile showroom that once occupied the site, Weinberger’s Packard Lofts project is also designed to include a street-level café and 39 enclosed parking spaces on a less-than-one-acre parcel at the northern end of Lakeview Terrace. With their stunning views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks, homeowners on the western side of the street in particular tend to resist developments that threaten to disturb their cozy enclave.
Alan Bjerke, a lawyer living in one of those homes, has led a long legal offensive against Packard Lofts. When Burlington’s Development Review Board approved the project, in 2005, he was the attorney who appealed it to the Vermont Environmental Court. Two years later, the environmental court ruled in favor of the project, whereupon Bjerke took the case to the Vermont Supreme Court, partly on grounds the decision did not take proper account of Burlington’s municipal plan.
In 2008, the Supremes green-lighted the Packard project, which has acquired all necessary state and local development permits, including Act 250.
Bjerke, a Burlington Democratic insider, did not return messages requesting comment on his bitter-end opposition to the signature Queen City project of his party’s mayoral nominee.
Delanty, who lives on nearby Sunset Court, says it’s ironic that Weinberger, a public advocate of walkable cities and mixed-income housing, wants to sell two- and three-bedroom condos at “astronomical” prices to two-car households. Weinberger notes that 39 parking spaces are the minimum required under local building regs. To conform with the city’s “inclusionary zoning” stipulation, at least 20 percent of the project’s condos will be priced within reach of Burlingtonians of moderate means: Prices vary from the low $100,000s for the five “affordable” units, to the mid-$200,000s for more spacious quarters, to about $400,000 for the largest condos.
That the process has stretched out for almost a decade “no doubt adds to the cost of the building,” Weinberger says. He’s optimistic, though, that ground breaking will finally occur this year. He estimates the likelihood at about 75 percent.
Does the man who would be mayor see a potential conflict in his role as developer of a controversial project? Nope. Weinberger says that because Packard Lofts has already received all local permits, there’s no reason to recuse himself from redeveloping a site that functioned most recently as an April Cornell warehouse. He also intends to retain a “minority ownership” stake in the project, explaining, “I don’t see why a Burlington mayor should not be a city property owner.”
Weinberger defends Packard Lofts as an example of the “New Urbanism” philosophy he propounds. The project’s density — three stories in a neighborhood of mainly single-family homes — is appropriate for a lot near the center of the state’s biggest city, especially given Burlington’s acute need for housing in all segments of the market, Weinberger argues. Bjerke’s success in stymieing the project can be seen as illustrative of the candidate’s contention at a recent mayoral debate that “it’s virtually impossible to build housing downtown.” Breaking through that blockage constitutes an important part of Weinberger’s vision for Burlington.
His record with the Hartland Group does show a consistent commitment to the New Urbanist style of environmentally sensitive, closely clustered, mixed-income residential development. The projects completed in Vermont and New Hampshire by the nine-year-old firm win plaudits both from affordable-housing advocates and residents of the properties that the Hartland Group helped construct.
“We love living here,” declares Morris Howard, a 72-year-old retired custodial worker and first resident of the Salisbury Square project in Randolph. Howard and his 69-year-old wife, Gloria, moved into their new one-bedroom apartment last month. Morris hasn’t let multiple sclerosis prevent him from directing the choir at the nearby Green Mountain Gospel Chapel.
The couple and other occupants of the 10 low-rent apartments built so far at Salisbury Square are benefiting from the Hartland Group’s work with the Randolph Area Community Development Corporation The partners redeveloped a former brownfield site, where a furniture manufacturer once operated on the edge of downtown. “It was a difficult project,” comments Julie Iffland, director of the local development corporation. “We’re a small organization and needed the outside consulting that the Hartland Group provided. We had a really good experience with them.”
Weinberger’s firm is “gentle about bringing in its outside expertise,” adds Kenn Sassorossi, vice president for partner relations at Housing Vermont, a nonprofit builder of affordable homes. The Hartland Group was “very helpful in coming up with a strategy” for redeveloping the Sweat-Comings furniture mill in Richford, Sassorossi says. Weinberger’s work on the mixed-use project — which includes a health clinic, grocery store, offices and subsidized rental apartments in a poor Franklin County town — leads Sassorossi to say, “I would unhesitatingly recommend the Hartland Group as folks to consider for small organizations undertaking community development projects.”
Weinberger and his Hartland partner, Charles Lief, also managed to build 120 mixed-income apartments and condos in 12 buildings on a 21-acre wooded site in Hanover, one of New Hampshire’s most upscale towns. This Gile Hill development adjoining Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is home to orderlies as well as to the hospital’s head of surgery, Weinberger points out. Gile Hill took two years to move from permit applications to the start of construction — a hare’s pace in comparison to the tortoise crawl of multiunit housing development efforts in Burlington.
The Hartland Group gets props as well from James Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. He gave Weinberger and Lief their first paid gig: writing a formal business plan for the center in 2004. “They were very generous in what they charged me,” Sturm recalls. “They were great to work with — really professional in all respects.”
Weinberger and Lief started the group in 2003 after collaborating for four years at the Greyston Foundation, a Yonkers, N.Y.-based community development initiative with a national reputation as a pioneer of inner-city entrepreneurial projects. Weinberger became vice president for capital projects at Greyston, which established a Yonkers bakery that employs 65 locals who produce brownies for Ben & Jerry’s.
Greyston is a Buddhist organization founded by Bernie Glassman, and Lief, who has a national reputation as a community developer, is a practicing Buddhist. Weinberger himself, however, identifies as a plain Jew, not a “Jew-Bu.”
His father, Michael Weinberger, worked for many years as an all-purpose architect in Woodstock, Vt. “My dad would drive me around to look at projects, so, yeah, I suppose that was a big influence on me,” Miro muses.
Baseball was influential, as well. Weinberger was the starting second baseman on the Woodstock Union High School team that won the state Division II championship in 1987. He spent the summer prior to his sophomore year at Yale University writing a series of columns for the Upper Valley’s Valley News about 26 Major League stadiums. “It was the best summer of my life,” Weinberger reflects. “I learned that not every ballpark is like Fenway, that context matters a great deal in how a project is perceived.”
In one-on-one conversation, Weinberger, 41, shows little of the awkwardness that he displays when he has to speak in public. “I could never tell if he was sincere,” Delanty says in assessing Weinberger’s performance at the many meetings relating to Packard Lofts.
Some Burlington liberals and Progressives also seem to distrust Weinberger due to his affluent, Ivy League background. These skeptics suggest he has trouble understanding the perspectives of working-class Burlingtonians.
Whether or not it qualifies as “noblesse oblige,” though, Weinberger does have experience in seeking to improve the circumstances of poor people. In the 1990s, he worked on two separate occasions with Habitat for Humanity in rural Georgia and Florida, acquiring carpentry skills while building homes in African American communities. The stint in Americus, Ga., left an especially strong imprint on Weinberger’s social conscience.
Along with scores of other volunteers, he worked for five weeks building a house for a local couple who had been living in what Weinberger describes as “an absolute hovel.” The completion of the new home was accompanied by a community celebration that Weinberger recounts with a smile and a flash of excitement in his dark eyes. “That brought a big awareness to me,” he says. “It made me understand that if housing can be fixed, so can a lot else in someone’s life.”