Twenty years from now, Vermonters may look at the mega-mall at Taft Corners and see nothing exceptional about it. By 2015, Chittenden County could be so thoroughly suburbanized that its residents will regard Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Toys R Us and all of Williston’s other chain outlets as inevitable components of a typical shopping-centered landscape.
A few older locals might recall, however, that the opening of Wal-Mart back in early 1997 was the key factor in the county’s metamorphosis into Anywhere, U.S.A. Some veterans of the struggle against the mall might even tell their grandchildren that it all could have been different — that the Burlington area could have avoided suburban-style uglification — had it not been for the successful efforts of one individual: Jeffrey L. Davis.
Many present-day opponents of the massive retail complex maintain that Davis’ personal tenacity accounts to a large degree for the coming of Wal-Mart and all it represents. These participants in the long battle to keep Williston mall-free blame Davis, the development's point-man, for refusing to make compromises that would at least have mitigated his project’s impact.
Davis doesn’t agree.
Although he’s clearly troubled by the villainous image he has acquired in some circles, it is equally apparent that Davis feels no guilt over building the biggest shopping center in Vermont — and making bundles of money in the process. The 44-year-old Burlington native was alternately concerned and convivial during an interview in his loft-like aerie five floors above Church Street.
Davis defends his development as an appropriate response to both physical and political circumstances.
“Those stores were going to come here eventually,” he says. “The only question was where they would end up. We had a piece of land that worked transportation-wise, because of its proximity to the Interstate, and that was also zoned for this kind of use.”
Davis notes that Costco, another nationwide discount retailer, opened a suburban-style outlet in Colchester a few years ago with barely a peep of opposition. Antagonism against his own project arose in part, Davis says, because “Wal-Mart is a symbol, a household name, the McDonald’s of retailers.”
The arrival of the Arkansas-based mass-merchandiser can be seen as an expression of democratic will, Davis adds. He notes that Taft Corners is designated a regional growth center under Act 200, Vermont’s development- siting law, and he points to his project’s compliance with all local and state environmental requirements.
“I believe a majority of people in Williston and Chittenden County were in support of this happening,” Davis further contends. “The Burlington area isn’t a whole lot different from the rest of the country in terms of shoppers’ needs and preferences. People here want just what other Americans want: better pricing for consumers.”
Davis bases his assessment of local sentiment on the results of Williston’s town elections, in which Wal-Mart opponents never managed to gain a majority on the selectboard. He also observes that Citizens for Responsible Growth “never got more than 35 people to come to a hearing to speak against” his project.
Steve Bradish, copresident of CRG during much of the anti-Wal-Mart campaign, disputes Davis’ claims. Bradish points to two opinion polls, one of them a scientific survey conducted by the University of Vermont, that found a narrow majority of Williston residents were opposed to retail development on the scale of Wal-Mart.
Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, on the other hand, says he doesn’t doubt that “a lot of Vermonters are happy to see this happening.” But Clavelle also suggests that Wal-Mart may not prove as successful as its backers envision. “The proof will come in how well it does, how many people shop there.” And the Progressive mayor echoes Paul Bruhn, director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, in arguing that once the impact of Davis’ development is fully felt, residents may become determined to prevent anything similar from arising elsewhere in the county.
Davis himself insists that the Williston mall will not lead to endless sprawl stretching toward Richmond and beyond. “Wal-Mart obviously pushes development further from the city,” he says, “but there is a regional plan and a state law — Act 200 — that won’t allow commercial growth to move ever outward. You won’t see a retail mall in Huntington in 20 years’ time.”
Rural parts of Vermont “are going to stay the way they are,” Davis asserts. And while he acknowledges that Chittenden County now has “much more traffic, much more development” than when he was attending Burlington High School, “it’s been done better here than in other areas of the country because we’ve done it with a plan in mind.”
Wal-Mart and the other chain outlets moving into his mall pose no significant threat to downtown Burlington, Davis continues. He draws a distinction between the discount merchandise to be offered at Taft Corners and the higher-end specialty goods for sale on Church Street. Even Woolworth’s may survive on the Marketplace, he suggests, because “its typical inner-city shopper isn’t going to drive out there” in search of bigger bargains at Wal-Mart.
Davis also professes his support for downtown — his development firm’s offices are located in Richardson Place, the architecturally exuberant building at the southeast corner of Church and Pearl Streets. Davis is co-owner of this century-old former rooming house, which he thoroughly renovated a decade ago.
He takes obvious pride in this example of historic preservation, as well as in his restoration of the 1840s Rowley farmhouse at Taft Corners, which now serves as the headquarters of J.L. Davis Realty.
Beside one of the roof buttresses in Davis’ Burlington office there hangs a 1980 photograph of the Marketplace under construction. He explains that it was his construction company that installed the piping under the Church Street pedestrian mall.
As for the possibility of Wal-Mart locating in downtown Burlington, Davis argues that the Queen City could offer no suitable existing structure like those being occupied by Wal-Mart in downtown Bennington and Rutland. Others say that the chain would have eventually agreed to come to Burlington were it not for Davis’ determination to build a Wal-Mart in the Williston hayfield he purchased in 1983.
If his attitudes regarding development and preservation seem paradoxical, Davis is actually typical of native Vermonters who favor vigorous economic growth even as they bemoan the irreversible defilement of beloved landscapes.
In another respect, however, Davis differs greatly from ordinary Vermonters.
The Underhill resident portrays himself as a self-made man, a local-boy-made-good. He worked on construction jobs while attending UVM and later found work with a Waitsfield building firm, where he rose to a supervisory position. Davis then started his own construction company in 1978, he recounts, and now focuses on development projects while also presiding over a commercial and residential realty operation.
Davis and his wife Karen, a Winooski native, have three children, ages 9, 7 and 4.
What he neglects to mention is that his father, Dudley Davis, served for many years as head of the Merchant’s Bank.That lineage qualified the younger Davis for membership in a local elite that includes his current business partners Ray Pecor, owner of Lake Champlain Transportation Co., Middlebury investment banker Willard Jackson, and Paul Casey, CEO of the embattled Hinesburg Sand & Gravel Co. Charles Davis, Jeffrey's brother and a well-connected banker, is also a partner in the Taft Corners development.
Some participants in the fight against Wal-Mart suggest that Davis’ social and economic standing may have bequeathed him with what they regard as a personal arrogance, “a sense that he’s entitled to get what he wants,” in the words of one critic.
Bitterness lingers on both sides of the 10-year battle. Scarred veterans say Davis sometimes launched personal attacks that are uncharacteristic of Vermont business leaders. Davis’ considerable political influence was instrumental in winning state acquiescence to the Wal-Mart project, his critics add.
For his part, the developer suggests that CRG was sometimes unreasonable in its objections to his plans.“Something of this size does need to get two, three or four looks, but we got about 15 looks from regulators,” Davis says. He attributes this degree of scrutiny to flaws in the permit-approval process, which “allows a proposal to be drawn out too long,” and to delaying tactics on the part of CRG.
The aspect of the struggle that most rankles Davis is the “double standard” that Wal-Mart opponents allegedly applied in the case of Maple Tree Place. This sizable retail development, proposed for a spot practically across the street from Wal-Mart, won the active approval of CRG after Maple Tree Place developer Ben Frank agreed to a number of concessions sought by the citizens’ group.
Frank's project is to be built in accordance with a village-green model dramatically different from the standard suburban mall. The shops at Maple Tree Place will be located on grid-pattern streets with curbside parking. This scheme is intended to resemble a traditional Vermont Village, complete with a grassy common and residential and office units.
Davis charges that CRG made no effort to wrest major road improvements from Frank, even though Maple Tree Place is projected to generate three times as much traffic as Wal-Mart. In his own case, Davis notes, the citizens’ group demanded that $18 million in road work be completed before the project could get under way.
Bradish, the former CRG leader, acknowledges that the organization took a more helpful approach toward Maple Tree Place because Frank “had negotiated good compromises with us.” Davis, by contrast, “was out for profit and wasn’t willing to compromise. We didn’t want his project here,” Bradish says.
Williston Town Planner David Spitz meanwhile predicts that Frank may have to spend more than $1 million on traffic improvements in order to get permits for Maple Tree Place.
Davis eventually had to dig deep into his own pocket to meet the reduced costs of road work set as a condition for his own development's go-ahead. Estimates of Davis' outlay, which he will not specify, range upwards of $1 million.
It is Davis' unwillingness to follow Frank’s compromise course that especially irks some Wal-Mart foes.
Waitsfield architect David Sellers, who helped devise the village-green design for Maple Tree Place, asked Davis to consider a variation of that scheme for the Wal-Mart project. Davis refused to modify his blueprint for big boxes surrounded by huge parking lots.
The changes favored by CRG would have made his development unfeasible, Davis maintains. He says some of Frank's concessions "make me wonder if his project is realistic in terms of the market." Big retailers “don’t like the idea of parking lots separated from their front door,” Davis notes, suggesting Frank may have trouble landing an anchor store for Maple Tree Place.
The Wal-Mart development will proceed in accordance with the familiar mall pattern, Davis says. He envisions the remaining 100 acres of commercially zoned land on his site being built up during the next 10 years. “There’s going to be more development there — office, retail, restaurants, but mainly retail.”
Davis has retained a landscaping firm that, he says, “will be very successful in Vermontizing the appearance” of the stores now under construction. “Toys R Us does want its image to be the same as elsewhere,” Davis admits, “but we’re trying to make it, and Wal-Mart, blend in more than they do in other places.”