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Burlington Ballot Items Could Help Decide The Future Of Downtown Redevelopment

Denis Tangney Jr.
The fate of a proposed redevelopment of the downtown mall in Burlington could depend on two items, numbers 3 and 4, on ballots in Burlington Tuesday.

On election day, residents in Burlington will be casting their ballots for a number of city issues. Two of the ballot items — numbers 3 and 4 — are related to the possible development of the downtown mall and have caused a heated debate and vigorous campaigns on both sides of the issue.

Right in the middle of downtown Burlington, the mall sits, blocking off parts of two streets and steadily losing businesses. A redevelopment plan has many hoping that could change but first voters would have to approve some other changes.

Ballot item 4 would let the city use money from a tax increment financing district — or TIF — to reconnect two streets currently blocked by the mall. In a TIF, new increases in property tax revenue is funneled back into the district for infrastructure improvements.

Specifically in the case of Burlington's TIF district, 75 percent of the new revenue generated by the new property taxes would go towards paying for the public infrastructure improvements. The remaining 25 percent of new revenue, along with the existing property tax revenue, would continue to go  towards the state education fund and the city.

And item 3 would make a number of zoning changes around the mall. The most controversial of which would allow buildings to be up to 160 feet -- taller than anything in the city right now.

Progressive City Councilor Max Tracy has serious concerns with the proposed redevelopment.

"I think that in terms of the height and massing that it is well out of scale with the city of Burlington," says Tracy.

He also doesn't think the project has enough affordable housing. The current plan for developing the mall would require that 20 percent of the residential units offered to be affordable housing.

Tracy says under current zoning, developers can build higher if they add more affordable housing in their projects. He says given the proposed height of this project, the city should have required more affordable housing.

"We really should be pushing developers to develop more affordable housing and that's why I introduced an amendment in the zoning process to move it from 20 to 25 percent," Tracy says. "That compromise did not go through. And therefore I have real issues with the amount of affordable housing that's being required for this development.

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Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger acknowledges that the redevelopment won't "solve all of Burlington's housing problems,"  but he says the requirement of 20 percent affordable housing is one of the highest requirements of any city in the country.

He also pointed out that both ballot items have the support from affordable housing organizations like the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), the Champlain Housing Trust, Housing Vermont and Vermont Interfaith Action.

Plus, he sees the project bringing many benefits to the city, like the reconnection of two city streets.

"I think that the people of Burlington will enjoy as a result of a 'yes' vote," Weinberger says, "more downtown jobs, more downtown homes, substantial increase in the amount of revenues flowing to the city in terms of property taxes."

Signs in Burlington on Town Meeting Day 2016.
Credit Liam Connors / VPR
VPR File
Signs supporting and opposing ballot initiatives 3 and 4 on a corner in Burlington Friday. Both deal with issues around proposed downtown redevelopment.

Last week, a group calledTogether for Progress held an informational open house of sorts at the mall.

The group was formed groups that support the ballot items. These groups include AARP, Burlington Business Association, Local Motion, Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and Chittenden Country Regional Planning Commission.

In one of the now empty store spaces people could grab a free beer, have some snacks and ask questions.

Kelsey Peace, a resident who attended the event, says she is "leaning toward yes" but still has lingering questions about the greater effect the building could have on the community.

On the other side of this debate is a group called the Coalition for a Livable City. Their members have been extremely vocal, posting flyers all over town and speaking out at meetings.

Michael Long, a member of the coalition, accuses the developer of dictating zoning changes to city.

"If you come into town as a developer you should know what the rules are," Long explains. "In this case, that's all thrown out when the developer gets to say, 'These are the rules and I'm going to need because yours don't fit my development.'"

Even if the ballot items pass the debate may not be over. The city and the developer still have to strike a formal agreement before the work can begin.

Correction 12:30 p.m. Nov. 5, 2016 An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Miro Weinberger formed "Together For Progress." The group was formed by a number of groups that support ballot items three and four. Additional clarification on Burlington's TIF district, a clarification of Councilor Max Tracy's comments regarding affordable housing and additional comments from Mayor Miro Weinberger were also added. 

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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