With a local election next week, development in Burlington is a hot button issue that has created controversy among many artists, residents, and businesses.
The planBTV South End process will “place an emphasis on a community conversation to find ways to promote and improve economic development, quality urban design, affordable and workforce housing, active transportation and parking management, as well as the quality and capacity of our public infrastructure,” according to the city of Burlington’s website.
The Biggest Threat
While many Burlington residents are excited to see development in the South End, the artist community has voiced concerns over the last few months that Mayor Miro Weinberger calls legitimate.
“One of the driving reasons that we chose to do this planBTV South End process was to get ahead of [real estate becoming too expensive] and to proactively attempt to find a way to protect and preserve what we love about the South End today including the arts and the other creative economy uses that are currently a major part of the South End,” Weinberger said.
According to the city’s most recent housing market analysis, “Burlington’s housing market is marked by an imbalance between supply and demand, as reflected in low rental vacancy rates and limited inventory of homes for sale – much lower than regional, national and ‘balanced’ levels…the rental housing imbalance translates into high housing costs (relative to income) and lower quality rental housing stock. These factors indicate a continuing need to produce new affordable units and to preserve the affordability of existing units.”
“I think the biggest threat to artists is the infrastructure. If property owners need to upgrade their storm water, septic water components to stay legit, those costs are going to be passed down to not only the artists, but the small businesses who rent their buildings,” Adam Brooks, the Executive Director of the South End Arts and Business Association (SEABA) said.
SEABA is best known for its Art Hop event, which brings approximately 30,000 people to the South End to view and purchase local art, attend comedy and musical performances, and enjoy local food every year.
“SEABA has been trying to inform, engage, and advocate for the South End,” Brooks said. “It’s great that the city is finally looking at the South End to make improvements and hopefully create a better economy. We have to stay involved and confident in that process in order for that to happen.”
An Artist's Perspective
Matt Hastings, an artist who rents a studio in the South End for his wood shop, Riven, is also concerned that the artist community will lose valuable space as a result of this redevelopment and a subsequent rise in rent.
Hastings uses his studio to make wooden furniture and houseware, and he does not supplement income with a part-time job. Hastings also uses the space to practice with his rock band, Vedora.
“I’d have to get pretty far out of town if I wanted to find something this commensurate,” Hastings said. “I feel sad that this possibility that this amazing thing that’s happening here might change and it might go away. It might be a harder place for people to be.”
Hastings describes the South End artist community as amazing and vibrant, chatting away about other artists who use studios near his and bands like local punk phenoms Rough Francis, who use a studio above his for practice space.
“I’m feeling hopeful, but also realistic,” Hastings said of the planBTV South End process.
“The biggest positive that I’ve seen is that Burlington is a town that really thinks about its growth. It’s time. People are moving here, rents are really high, and there’s a demand for living in the city of Burlington. This is a very underdeveloped area. Bringing more people into the conversation has been a big positive as well,” Hastings said.
Hastings also notes that this redevelopment doesn’t come as a surprise. “The change that happens when artists come into a place is pretty well documented, it’s pretty much a pattern,” he said. “Artists, by nature of their way of existing in the world and seeing the world, they see opportunity where other people see neglect or emptiness or disrepair and decay.”
“I would hate to see the City Council and the Mayor make decisions that would homogenize the socioeconomic diversity down here,” Hastings added. “I think that’s the key to having any good city, any good environment, is people from different walks of life, making different amounts of money, involved in different vocations coming from different backgrounds bumping into each other, because that’s where life happens.”
Mayor Weinberger has taken artist concerns into account. “We’ve all seen examples across the country where that kind of change happens to communities and the arts community that had originally been a part of why a place became interesting,” he said. ”There’s even some sense that that’s what’s starting to happen now.”
When asked how he plans to address this problem, Weinberger responded without hesitation. “One of the interesting and kind of unique things about the way that we’re dong this planning process is that we were able to go out and get this $100,000 very competitive National Endowment for the Arts grant,” Weinberger explained.
“The explicit purpose of [the grant] was to make sure that during this planning process we were taking into account the arts perspective and that we were involving artists in that planning. I’m pretty excited about what it’s done,” he said, citing recent community conversations and debates that the South End community has participated in.
Adam Brooks also raised concerns about the form-based code (FBC) that has been prominent in the planBTV downtown and waterfront processes. Since the interview with Brooks, Burlington’s City Council has voted not to use FBC in the planning process for the South End redevelopment.
“I think it was a mistake that part of the enterprise zone was initially put into that form base code process. That was premature, because we haven’t done the planning yet in the South End to come up with that consensus vision of where we want to go,” Weinberger said.
Roads, Rides and the Risks
Brooks cites the Champlain Parkway as his primary concern with the planBTV South End Project.
“What we ultimately hope is that some of the issues we have to deal with every day and have been dealing with for the past 20 or 30 years are resolved,” Brooks said of his hopes for the project. “Things like additional parking, safer sidewalks and crosswalks…we really hope are addressed during this process especially with the Champlain Parkway supposedly coming through.”
According to a Public Works website dedicated to information about the proposed road, “The Champlain Parkway project is a proposed transportation link located in the southwestern quadrant of the City of Burlington…providing access between I-189, U.S Route 7 (Shelburne Street) and the City Center District.”
“It’s estimated to increase traffic by anywhere from 10% to 30% during peak hours,” Brooks said. “That would have been fine when the plan was made, but the South End has grown and there’s already more traffic down here than there was 10 years ago. Adding 10% to 30% is just going to create a lot of issues for the businesses and even some of the residents.”
“This is, again, a legitimate concern,” Weinberger said. “I think it will bring some additional cars along Pine Street. It may not actually be experienced as additional traffic in the sense that congestion is actually supposed to be improved because of the additional connection to the highway and because of the additional traffic lights that will be going in, things may actually flow a little more smoothly.”
“This is a design that my administration has inherited that has been evolving literally over decades,” Weinberger continued. “The plan we took on was not conceived when Pine Street was this dynamic, growing, pedestrian and bike oriented place that it is today and is becoming more so every day.”
Weinberger addressed public safety as a primary objective in the redevelopment process. “I’m really optimistic that when we actually build [The Champlain Parkway], it’s actually going to make Pine Street a better place to walk and bike than it is today,” he said.
Weinberger cited changes to curbs, added bike facilities, and a narrower road as primary changes the city hopes to make to Pine Street. “[Pine Street is] designed as kind of a suburban road and people drive pretty fast on it. That’s why we see a really concerning number of pedestrian and bike accidents. If we are able to make these changes to the roadway…people will perceive it as a busier place and will drive more cautiously and carefully when they’re on Pine Street,” he said.
“In the end, I understand why that concern exists today,” Weinberger said. “I’m hopeful that by the time we actually build it, people will see that this actually going to make Pine Street safer than it is today.”
The Burlington Way
Throughout the interview, Mayor Weinberger emphasized the importance of community conversation in this planning process. “I think one of the reasons that Burlington is such a unique, great place is that we have been really self-conscious and gotten people together and been really proactive about where we want to head as a city,” he said.
Weinberger cites Burlington’s prominent food initiative as an example. “It’s not an accident…30 or 40 years ago people got together and said ‘we should have a co-op, we should have a farmer’s market, and we should have better food in our schools than we have today.’”
“Here we are, 30 or 40 years later and I think [the local food movement] must have exceeded some of their grandest expectations, how significant these institutions have become and how great the food options are for us today,” he said.
“I think that’s kind of the Burlington Way,” Weinberger continued. “We get people together, we talk about what we’re worried about in the future, what we’d like to see happen, and then we go out, we work hard, and we make it happen. That’s the intent with this South End planning process.”
“I hope people understand that that’s the idea here and I’m really optimistic that that’s what’s going to happen,” Weinberger said. “We’re going to create some kind of consensus about what we want to see happen in the South End, and then we’ll find a way to make that happen as a community.”