It's hard to imagine that the curving Lake Champlain shoreline of Burlington Bay was once littered with oil tanks, industrial barges, timber and pollution-spewing smokestacks. A few remnants of the working harbor remain, but the stretch between Rock Point and Oakledge Park is increasingly a place for recreation, restaurants and pleasure boating. Some 30 years after the City of Burlington used the public trust doctrine to win a court battle and reclaim big chunks of the waterfront from the railroad, its transformation continues. Here's a look at pending and possible changes, large and small, along the 4.5-mile lakeside stretch.
1. Rock Point
Safe from Burlington's busy bulldozers is Rock Point, a 130-acre peninsula of green woods and meadows punctuated by a stunning cliff overlooking Lake Champlain. Two fundraising efforts are under way to conserve the land, which is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. One has generated more than $1.7 million to improve the existing trail network and restore the historic buildings on the property. The second is a quest for $870,000 to forever preserve the acreage from development. The impending construction of roughly 700 new housing units at nearby Cambrian Rise — the former Burlington College property — underscores the pressure on what Rock Point legacy minister Ellen McCulloch-Lovell describes as "a green lung for the city." The diocese is seeking financial assistance from nonprofit partners, individual donors and, most likely, Burlington's city conservation fund. The land will remain privately owned, but look for better signs directing walkers to trails that have long been open to the public. Currently the paths can be accessed on foot via North Beach and from a parking lot on the property next to the diocesan office building. Visitors are asked to register online at rockpointvt.org for a free day or season pass and, in the process, have to agree to follow the rules. Fires and nighttime use are prohibited.
2. North Beach
Burlington's oldest public beach turns 100 this year, but there's a new sign between the water and the parking lot. A large brown placard, installed this spring, advises visitors to leash dogs and forgo glass containers in nine different languages: English, French, Nepali, Arabic, Vietnamese, Burmese, Bosnian, Swahili and Somali. Similar instructions have been installed in other city parks and greenways that are popular recreation spots for visiting Québéqois and members of the local refugee community. Parking will be free the weekend of August 11 and 12 in celebration of the city's acquisition of the North Beach property in 1918. Back then, there were few places for Burlington residents to swim legally because so much of the city shoreline was dominated by industry or was privately held. People flocked to the Municipal Bathing Beach. The city added concessions and, in 1965, the North Beach campground. Beach attendance reached nearly 70,000 in the summer of 1967, and entrance fee revenue helped finance the purchase of other city parklands. Last year, the beach drew more than 120,000 people. That's a reason to say happy birthday, in every language.
3. North Beach Campground
It's not just tents, pop-ups and RVs at the popular 45-acre campground between North Beach and Burlington High School. This spring, volunteers from the nonprofit YouthBuild Burlington helped city park workers build a small wooden lean-to on the woodsy east side. Once completed, it could become a permanent structure. BYO bug spray.
4. Burlington Bike Path
The bike ferry will operate this summer after all — welcome news for cyclists who had been told it wouldn't run this season. Storm-driven wind and waves in May damaged the surface of the popular and scenic Colchester Causeway that juts four miles into Lake Champlain. It also closed the Law Island Railroad Bridge, about three-quarters of a mile out on the causeway, so bikers can't pedal beyond that. But the Vermont Agency of Transportation will step in to repair the causeway, which is expected to cost $563,000, ferry operator Local Motion announced Tuesday. The ferry is now scheduled to reopen in early July, a bit later than usual. The bike trail has been getting plenty of other maintenance. Fresh yellow lines mark the rebuilt northern stretch of Burlington's eight-mile bike path, now called the Burlington Greenway by the city parks department. Its entire length is open, with new stairs and walkways connecting the path to neighborhoods and beaches, as well as exercise stations where cyclists can dismount to do abdominal crunches and push-ups. Two more stations will be built this summer, near Leddy Beach and the Northshore condominiums.
5. Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center
Burlington's new three-story sailing hub celebrated its grand opening last Saturday. But getting to that point required some tricky navigation. Organizers wrongly believed the project was in a low-income census zone and therefore eligible for federal tax credits. But they read the map wrong. The miscalculation, discovered near the end of last year's capital campaign, created a $1.7 million shortfall and forced backers to make last-minute appeals for additional private donations. Their efforts paid off. The 22,000-square-foot, roughly $6 million space is gleaming and bright, with room for boat storage, classrooms, showers, a workshop and bathrooms with hot water — unlike the Porta-Potties at the former makeshift location next to the Moran Plant. Most of the third floor is a large covered deck with spectacular views. The fundraising work isn't done, though. The center still needs cash for new docking and, until it's built, will continue to use its old boat launch in front of the Moran Plant. Center staffers expect their nicer digs to attract more adults for rentals, races and lessons, along with the many children, high schoolers and college students who cruise the harbor on the sailing center's keelboats. New this year: adult sailing lessons that pair tips on "coming about" with après-sail suds at nearby Foam Brewers.
6. Lake Street Extension Parking
The free waterfront parking near the Andy A_Dog Williams Skatepark was great while it lasted — since the lot was constructed in 2016. In mid-June, the City of Burlington will start charging $1 an hour for a maximum of three hours at the 94 spots along Lake Street Extension. Apparently that was the plan all along: Short-term parking during peak season should bring in revenue and accommodate multiple users per day, according to city officials. The Public Works Commission approved the new fees last month, and kiosks similar to those around the city are being installed. The $1-per-hour rate will be valid from May 1 to October 31. Rates will drop to 40 cents an hour, for up to 10 hours, from November 1 to April 30.
7. 85 North Avenue
The large gash at the top of Depot Street is the future home of a 43-unit, $11 million apartment building currently named for its address, 85 North Avenue. The four-story building at the top of the steep hill will showcase the full panorama of Lake Champlain. Pilings and large steel columns will keep the building, and the hill, in place, says Erik Hoekstra, managing partner at Redstone, which is developing the project. Rents haven't been announced for apartments in the room-with-a-view complex. Construction is under way, and the place is expected to be occupied by next June.
8. Burlington Harbor Marina
Local boaters wait up to eight years to lease one of the Queen City's roughly 265 boat berths and moorings. Tourists who arrive via Lake Champlain often can't find a spot to tie up — and hence don't stick around as long as they might. That parking problem motivated developer Jack Wallace to approach the city five years ago about building a private marina on its waterfront land. City voters approved tax increment financing money for the project in 2014, and the city council signed off in 2016. Construction started last week. When it opens next spring, the 160-slip Burlington Harbor Marina will be wedged between the public fishing pier and the U.S. Coast Guard Station. Most of it will be floating: two main gangways that lead to fingers of docking and slips and the main operations building with showers, lockers and a small retail store. At least 64 of the slips are to be parking for "transient" boats that come into Burlington looking for somewhere to tie up. Landside, the small public pavilion area in front of the Burlington Water Department is going to be a marina drop-off area for cars, and a row of public parking that stretches from the fishing pier to the Moran Plant will become a new public pocket park. But some members of the public aren't happy. The Burlington fishing pier will be closed all summer — to the dismay of anglers — and until the marina opens next year with new parking behind the Water Department on the north side of Penny Lane. Wallace points out that part of the marina's docking will be open to the public and promises a "first-class facility." How first class? At press time, slip-rental prices had not been announced.
9. Moran Plant
Many have tried — and failed — to redevelop Burlington's former coal-fired electric generating plant, but the hulking brick building remains a stubborn relic of the waterfront's gritty industrial past. Since the most recent attempt, New Moran, was shelved last fall, there's no active plan to transform or demolish it. Tearing the building down and cleaning up the site could cost as much as $10 million. In short, it's not going anywhere. The city does plan to commission a study, possibly this summer, to analyze the cost of securing and stabilizing the edifice. That's according to Noelle MacKay, who spoke with Seven Days shortly before she left her job last month as director of the Burlington Community & Economic Development Office. She said Memorial Auditorium's renovation and the downtown mall makeover are CEDO's priorities right now. Meanwhile, Moran's fans are still hoping that a new, viable plan emerges. The building has been sitting idle for 32 years, gathering guano and graffiti. Guess it can wait a few more.
10. ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain
Say goodbye to the "fog rocks" that surprise museumgoers with a cooling lake mist on hot summer days. After Labor Day, Burlington's aquarium is changing up its entryway. The big fish sculpture at the front of the building will be relocated to the back. In its place, designers will install the first phase of an "energy commons" to better engage kids outside the facility. The project eventually will include play structures that illustrate how power is generated and consumed, as well as new outdoor seating on the north side of the building. This fall, Vermont artist Pike Porter is building a bike rack in the shape of oversize lily pads for the site. Less whimsical, but necessary: The museum is getting a paved parking lot and a new storm water system, with signs explaining how it works. Ditto solar panels over a portion of the parking lot that will provide energy for the museum. Seizing every teachable moment.
11. Local Motion
Need a bike rental? Local Motion has expanded its fleet from 80 to 100 bikes. A half dozen electric bicycles are also available for use, free of charge, in a partnership with Burlington Electric Department. Plus, Greenride Bikeshare Vermont's first public bike share system, which launched this spring, has a station next to Waterfront Park. Ride on!
12. Lake Champlain Transportation Company
Anyone want to buy a ferry? The head of Lake Champlain Transportation Company, Trey Pecor, is looking to sell the 1947 Valcour, which transports people and cars from Burlington to Port Kent, N.Y. The summer-only, broad-lake route attracts less traffic than the company's ferry crossings in Grand Isle and Charlotte, but rumors that it might be discontinued aren't true, Pecor said. For now it will continue, and other boats in the fleet will take over if the Valcour sells. Pecor wants it gone to free up space for recreational boat slips. His company is seeking state and federal environmental permits to add 70 spots to its current 80, nearly doubling capacity. If all goes well, the first 40 would go in next summer. Pecor's company occupies six acres on the waterfront for which there have been various development schemes over the years, including plans for a hotel complex. But Pecor said the company would have to find a new home with the same deep-water access, breakwater-protected harbor and shed space to accommodate the heavy equipment now used to repair and maintain the company's boats. Land ho?
13. Pomerleau Yacht
Burlington real estate magnate Tony Pomerleau died in February at age 100, but his 66-foot yacht remains. The big white powerboat showed up late last month at the end of Perkins Pier, where it will spend one more summer. While the Pomerleau patriarch won't be aboard this year to watch Burlington's Independence Day fireworks show on July 3, his family will gather to pay tribute to the man who liked to make deals and play poker on the vessel he named Paradise Found. Come September, they'll likely try to sell the Viking yacht, said Tony's son Ernie. But her size might make it difficult to find a buyer. The self-made Pomerleau wasn't thinking about resale value when he announced he was buying the boat years ago. At the time, Ernie remembered, "I said, 'What kind?' He said, 'Just big.'" For a similar experience — without the financial investment — check out cruises on the Spirit of Ethan Allen and the smaller, wind-powered Whistling Man Schooner Company's Friend Ship .
14. Perkins Pier
Anglers might be more likely to cast off Perkins Pier this summer since Burlington's other fishing pier is closed until further notice. The big catch, though, is the Lois McClure . The replica canal schooner is returning to Burlington after an absence of almost two years. The vessel has been busy educating the public about the role of working boats in the Northeast and Midwest. She spent the summer of 2017 plying the Erie Canal as part of the waterway's bicentennial events. And after wintering over in New York, this summer the McClure is taking part in the GlassBarge Tour celebrating the 150th anniversary of glassmaking in Corning, N.Y. The public is invited to attend a welcome-home party on October 6 that will include glassblowing demonstrations near the pier, information about the role that canal schooners played in industrial development and tours of the canal boat.
15. Burlington Surf Club
The private stretch of Queen City shoreline once owned by Blodgett Oven has become the members-only Burlington Surf Club. A skill saw buzzed as workers put the finishing touches on a gated ramp that opens to the Burlington bike path from the fenced east side of the property. Towering cottonwood trees stand near the waterline, which is rocky in spots, sandy in others, and now cleared of the trash and hypodermic needles that had accumulated, especially near an adjacent patch of public waterfront sometimes referred to as Hobo Beach. Blodgett employees are working in the adjacent brick manufacturing buildings — but not for long. This is their last summer at the Lakeside Avenue complex. Russ Scully bought the property last year for $14.3 million. The local businessman, whose enterprises include the Spot on the Dock restaurant on Perkins Pier and the nearby WND&WVS surf gear store on Pine Street, hopes to attract an out-of-state tech company to the spot. Meanwhile, the dude is turning a hunk of beach into a private enclave. It's not clear whether Burlington residents will line up to suntan at a pay-to-play club on the shore, even one with a casual, surf-shack vibe. The club owners won't say how many people have signed up for summer memberships, which run from $250 per individual to $750 per family. A day pass is $20. For some, that's a small price to pay for trained lifeguards and access to all manner of paddleboards and sailboards. For others, it's a swim raft too far.
16. Oakledge Park
Look for some new playground pieces near the entrance of Burlington's southernmost park this summer. The Oakledge for All Pop-Up is a sample version of a universal playground project that is accessible to kids with cognitive and physical disabilities. If planners can raise enough money, the full-scale version will be installed in 2019 or 2020. Playtime!
Drone photos by James Buck. Map design by Andrea Suozzo.