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McQuiston: Church Steet Redevelopment

In a deli at the top of Church Street in Burlington there’s a vintage photo from the post-Civil War era of the street itself - still just a dirt road lined with modest buildings that look like bungalow-style homes.

Clearly, Burlington’s downtown has evolved greatly since that 19th century picture was taken. And that evolution continues.

The next step is a proposed $220 million building project that will turn the Burlington Town Center mall area into a modern, mixed use housing and commercial space. I think this is exactly what the city needs. But there’s vocal opposition to the project – especially a 14-story office tower that would be considerably taller than any other building in Vermont.

Along with changing the cityscape, opponents worry that it will change the human-scape, by making the downtown a place only for fat cats.

And it’s true that the mall area itself will change profoundly. But it’s hard to believe anyone will miss it. The ‘70s might have brought us ecological awareness and Disco, but it also taught us how to regrettably do urban renewal on the cheap – with projects that were more like cement Band-Aids than proper, long-term economic development plans.

But this project has the potential to be transformative. The plan that the developer and city officials have worked out boasts 350,000 square feet of office and retail space. It will reconnect the orphaned Pine and St Paul Streets and upgrade infrastructure significantly. It will bring hundreds of jobs, both construction and permanent. The hope is to break ground in 2017 and complete the first phase in 2019.

While the project promises only 20 percent of the 270 housing units will be affordable, the project is not targeted to the wealthy. And while the city certainly needs more lower-income housing, it also needs more housing for average people – especially housing that’s near where they work.

The current mall is not enjoying the success of the rest of the city and retailers are abandoning the aging structure. Covered malls aren’t what they used to be, here or anywhere else in America.

Burlington is a unique place. The small scale of the city is one of its profound strengths but it can’t remain static and continue to thrive. The mayor and many others are working to manage change responsibly. This redevelopment and the debate surrounding it are a necessary part of that evolution.

Tim McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.
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