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Burlington Businesses Anxious For Completion Of CityPlace Construction

A series of colorful paintings cover a fence along a slushy road.
Liam Elder-Connors
The hole where the Burlington mall used to be has been empty for two years, and downtown business owners want to see progress with the CityPlace construction project.

As retailers gear up for the holiday season, one of Vermont’s best-known shopping districts finds itself with a massive hole: the site of the torn down Burlington mall.

For two years, the project has remained fenced off while facing numerous delays. While Brookfield Properties recently unveiled a scaled back plan – which many city officials praised as a step in the right direction – developers still have a long road ahead.

In the meantime, downtown businesses are anxious to see progress. 

Chiuho Sampson owns A Single Pebble, an upscale Chinese restaurant that’s been a staple in downtown Burlington for years. Her business is also directly across from the infamous hole where the old mall, which spanned a whole block, was torn down. 

Sampson said business slowed when demolition began in 2017, so she scaled back lunch hours. Things haven’t improved much in the two years since, and in July, she stopped serving lunch altogether and let go of a couple of employees.  

A woman with gloved hands in rice.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
A Single Pebble owner Chiuho Sampson has had to stop serving lunch, let go of a couple of employees and get a food truck in the past two years as CityPlace construction - or lack thereof - has affected her restaurant business.

On a recent weekday, she stood over a tub of rice and, with gloved hands, broke it up into individual grains to allow each piece to get coated in seasoning. As she did so, she said the pit outside of her restaurant was a bit dreary, but out of her hands. 

“There’s not much I can do,” Sampson said. “I only can control the rice in front of me.”

Sampson estimates that she’s lost about 20% of her business. To make up for it, she got a food truck and said it’s helped keep the restaurant afloat. She’s determined to keep the doors open, for her sake and for her 40 employees.

“The people, they work for me for more than 15 years. I know their children, I know their family. I can’t easily just say, ‘You know what, we’re done,’” she said. “Maybe one day I’ll get to it, but we’re not there yet, I’m not there yet.”

After looking at a hole in the downtown for two years, Sampson and other businesses owners are eager to see it filled. Danielle Moon, a manager at the clothing store Stella Mae, said it’s time for progress. 

“I would really love it if they would have a plan set in place, very shortly, and started to get it rolling, and that we have something in that space in the next year,” Moon said.

She might get her wish — if Brookfield can follow through.

At the end of October, Brookfield officials revealed a new, scaled-back CityPlace proposal. In this new iteration, the maximum height is reduced from 14 stories to 10 stories.

Aanen Olsen, a Brookfield Vice-President, told Burlington’s city council the development still includes a mix of retail and office space and now a 175-room hotel. The project is expected to have between 280 and 300 housing units, the same as the original plan.

More from VPR — A Timeline Of Burlington's CityPlace Project

An empty, snowy lot surrounded by chainlink fence.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Construction has been stalled for many months at the CityPlace site where the Burlington mall used to be.

“Our plan over the next two months is to kind of advance the design to a point where we can start the public approval process, we can negotiate with our tenants and, you know, try to be under construction next year,” Olsen said.

Olsen declined to share the cost of the project, but said previously secured financing was still in place.  

City officials generally praised the new design and expressed cautious optimism that the project is back on track. Even though CityPlace is still far from completion, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said downtown businesses are doing well. 

“We are at record highs or very near record highs with both our gross receipts and sales tax revenues,” Weinberger said. “And I say that to hammer home we’re full here on Church Street, the health of the downtown is strong.”

While the bottom line for businesses might be okay, the hole could be affecting the perception of the downtown according to Burlington Business Association Executive Director Kelly Devine.

“Even if it’s not affecting downtown business, and I don’t think it is, the indirect impact is that people perceive it, maybe, as a negative, or perceive it as a problem,” Devine said.

There are still a number of hurdles for Brookfield to clear before it can break ground. There are city permits to secure, a lawsuit to resolve, and a need to find retail and office tenants, including finalizing an agreement with the project’s anchor tenant: the University of Vermont Medical Center. The hospital is looking to rent space for 400 workers.  

And this lingering uncertainty for an already-pushed back project makes some business owners wary.

A man stands in a workshop.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Nowa Crosby, owner of Randolin Music sales and repair shop in Burlington, said his business has been struggling in part due to loss of parking because of the CityPlace construction project.

Nowa Crosby owns Randolin Music, a small instrument store and repair shop. He’s worked downtown for more than 20 years at various music stores before opening his own. Crosby’s been struggling, and he blames it, in part, on the loss of parking due to the stalled mall redevelopment. 

“You know, after four months of really bad sales, if I didn’t have the repairs, I would have been out of business,” he said.

It got so bad, he even took to fundraising online to stay open. At this point, Crosby, who’s also a Zen Buddish priest, has little patience left.

“I don’t know how I can survive,” he said. “How long is [it] going to be, before they finish? A year, or two years?”

Brookfield agreed to pay the city $122,000 to fund free parking during the holidays. But the company has yet to provide a start date for construction.

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