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Residents build a case against another apartment complex in Burlington's Old North End


Published April 28, 2004 at 1:21 p.m.

Lakeview Terrace doesn't have Burlington's biggest or most lavish homes, but many of its residents say they wouldn't choose to live anywhere else in the Queen City. Once a solidly working-class neighborhood, this scenic street one block west of North Avenue offers spectacular views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks, and is within easy walking or biking distance of the waterfront and downtown. It offers a sampling of Old North End diversity, with a mix of families, students, immigrants and young and old singles. Three out of four residents own their homes, and the average family has lived there 21 years, according to a recent survey. Earlier this year, the Lakeview Terrace Neighbor-hood Association entered a float in the Mardi Gras parade and took first place -- a testament to their strong community pride.

But the neighborhood has also become the latest hot spot in Burlington's ongoing debate over housing density and urban infill. Residents of Lakeview Terrace, Sunset Court and surrounding blocks are riled about a housing development that may be built in their midst, on the site of the old Cornell Trading Company warehouse at 237 North Avenue. The project is in an early stage -- a formal design proposal hasn't even been submitted to the city yet. But based on preliminary sketches and discussions with Burlington-based developer the Hartland Group, the project could include as many as 28 condominiums on the 0.7-acre lot.

Burlington officials view it as a dream development that addresses the city's goal of increasing population without gentrification. But that's not how the neighbors see the plans, which indicate an apartment complex larger than its neighbor just a few blocks south on North Avenue -- "Commodore Point" is 16 units on a 0.6-acre lot. They fear a project of that scale would literally overshadow their quaint neighborhood, create traffic snarls and parking congestion, obstruct lake views, and reduce open space.

This debate isn't a garden-variety disagreement between anti-growth NIMBYs and money-grubbing developers who want to cram as many condos as possible onto a small land parcel. Parties on both sides recognize that Burlington needs more affordable housing, and that the old warehouse could better serve the community if it were converted into units that blend with the street's residential character. The developers claim their new building is compatible with the aesthetic of the block, and that it's attractive, environmentally sound, and offers a good mix of mid- and higher-priced dwellings. By their estimates, about one-fifth of the units would qualify as affordable housing.

The main sticking point seems to be, how big is too big? And how much design flexibility should developers have? The city is tinkering with its zoning ordinances to encourage more high-density housing projects like this one as a reward for "adaptive reuse," or the conversion of commercial and industrial buildings into housing. Currently, the Burlington City Council is debating an amendment to its adaptive reuse law, which would allow the Hartland Group to use the first floor of the building for indoor resident parking.

Alan Bjerke is opposed to the project. For the last five years, he has lived at 145 Lakeview Terrace beside the Cornell warehouse. Bjerke, an attorney, says he doesn't object to new neighbors moving in next door. He does, however, have a problem with the scope of this project. "I'm very concerned that the project as proposed by the Hartland Group is such a dramatic departure from the surrounding community," Bjerke says. "What they're proposing is a large, gated, fortress-like community where you need security cards to get in and out of the indoor parking."

Bjerke's neighbor, poet Greg Delanty, lives with his wife and son at the corner of Lakeview Terrace and Berry Street, across the street from the Cornell warehouse. Delanty says he is sympathetic to the need for more affordable housing in the Old North End -- he spent five years working with the homeless in his native Ireland -- but questions the need for such a large apartment building and all the additional cars it would bring to their tiny block. "I'm as anxious as anyone, if not more, that people get housing in the city. I'm not insensitive," Delanty says. "My main thing is parking and traffic... It'll be a huge impact for us."

A group of Lakeview Terrace residents who meet on a regular basis have generated a list of concerns, such as maintaining the existing trees and landscaping, preserving the scenic quality of the block, screening the new building's trash, recycling and utility services from public view, and ensuring that the building's design fits in with other buildings on the block. Recently, they conducted a neighborhood survey and found that 85 percent of the residents oppose the idea of putting 20 or more apartments on that site. Of the 46 families who responded to the survey, nearly all said that their biggest concerns are how many apartments are built, how many people will live there and how much of the lot the new building would occupy.

But the developers from the Hartland Group say their design concept has been misconstrued, as have their efforts to clarify the city's adaptive reuse ordinance. Hartland Group co-founders Charles Lief and Miro Weinberg-er are not old-school developers who erect ugly strip malls, big-box stores or other eyesores on the suburban landscape. Lief and Weinberger both come from a nonprofit background at the New York-based Grayston Foundation, where they developed more than $45 million in affordable housing and community development projects. Weinberger, a Vermont native, worked for Habitat for Humanity in Georgia and Florida, and currently serves on the steering committee for the Vermont Forum on Sprawl's "Vermont Neighborhoods Project."

As Weinberger explains, part of the misunderstanding comes from the belief that the proposed zoning amendment would allow them to build more units per acre and erect larger buildings than the law currently allows. Neither is the case. Under existing law, if a builder converts a structure that doesn't conform with the surrounding residential zoning --in this case, a warehouse -- into a conforming use, like homes and apartments, the city offers a "density bonus." That bonus allows the builder to double the number of units per acre from 20 to 40. However, the law, as currently written, also discourages builders from using the existing structure for anything but housing units. Indoor parking doesn't qualify for the density bonus.

That's unfortunate in the case of the Cornell building, Weinberger explains, because the warehouse, which was once a Packard automobile showroom, is ideally suited for enclosed parking. And since the city encourages builders to conceal parking indoors, it would eliminate the need for an outdoor parking lot that consumes open space, which in turn could be better used for landscaping, patio decks, back yards and other features that are more attractive to residents and neighbors alike.

"There are considerable design benefits, and we think, frankly, neighborhood benefits, from allowing the greater flexibility that this amendment would allow," Weinberger says. "And that's why we've been waiting for about a year to see if it will go through."

Some residents still contend, however, that this amendment is being done simply to benefit the Hartland Group -- what one resident described at a recent meeting as "spot zoning." But Brian Pine, assistant director for Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization at the city's office of Community and Economic Development, rejects that assertion. He explains that an amendment of the existing ordinance would simply allow developers greater flexibility in their design concepts. In the case of the Cornell warehouse, he says it would allow the new apartments to be more attractive to both its residents and their neighbors. Read: second and third-floor units with lake views. The zoned height limit for the area is 35 feet, about the same as Burlington College.

"There's a goal of having greater stability and greater income diversity and more homeowners in the Old North End, and that's why we feel like this [amendment] is a slam dunk, because it allows [the Hartland Group] to build quality units that are big enough that people would probably stay put," Pine says. "And, you'd get a pretty good income mix, with folks who could also afford to pay for a pretty awesome view of the lake."

Pine recognizes that local residents have some legitimate concerns about preserving the residential character of the neighborhood. But as he points out, the warehouse was historically a community nuisance that generated frequent complaints about noise and commercial traffic. Thus far, he asserts, the Hartland Group has been upfront in addressing neighbors' concerns, organizing community meetings and covering part of the cost of a facilitator to work out their differences. "I thought it was a pretty respectful process," Pine says.

Still, many residents are unconvinced. While most folks living along Lakeview Terrace acknowledge that the city needs more affordable housing, both to promote economic development and control suburban sprawl, they say that this project is still too big for their modest block. And while they commend the builders for trying to create a conscientious design, as one resident put it recently, "It's like parking a cruise ship in the neighborhood."