People & Places

Year in Review: Top Burlington stories of 2016

Don Sinex
Burlington Town Center Mall owner Don Sinex speaks at a news conference Wednesday with Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, center, and PC Construction Senior Vice President Jay Fayette. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — For the Queen City, 2016 was marked by the closure of a beloved liberal arts college, and the advance of major redevelopment plans for downtown.

It was also punctuated by police killings and pervaded by the ongoing struggle against opioid addiction and overdose death.

Just days before New Years 2016, police executing a controversial no-knock warrant shot and killed alleged drug dealer Kenneth Stephens inside his Elmwood Avenue apartment.

Before Stephens’ killing, only two people had been killed by police in Vermont since 2013. Police in the Burlington area went on to kill two other people during 2016.

In each of those three killings the Chittenden County state’s attorney and state attorney general cleared the officer involved of any wrongdoing, but the incidents raised larger questions about how police do their jobs.

In March, police responded to a downtown apartment building where Ralph “Phil” Grenon, 76, was shouting and making threats. Grenon was facing eviction, and his family said they had tried to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital for his deteriorating mental condition.

Officers found Grenon standing in the doorway of his open apartment holding two knives. Five hours later, Officer David Bowers, 23, shot and killed Grenon as he stepped out of the shower where police had cornered him — still holding the knives.

Grenon’s killing exposed a lack of support services for poor people struggling with mental illness and the difficulty police face as they’re increasingly the first point of contact for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The episode prompted further efforts by Burlington police to train officers in de-escalation tactics and sparked calls for more police oversight.

In September, a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy who had been fired from two previous policing jobs, was returning to his home in Winooski when he stopped to aid local officers who had surrounded a burglary suspect.

The suspect, Jesse Beshaw, fled and Sheriff’s Deputy Nick Palmieri gave chase. That led to a confrontation behind the O’Brien Community Center where Beshaw, with a hand tucked behind his back in the waistband of his basketball shorts, screamed at Palmieri to shoot him. Palmieri fired seven times, killing Beshaw.

“If you look at these last three shootings, if there’s a common theme there, it’s these questions about tactics,” said Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan who will be sworn in as Vermont’s next attorney general in January.

Burlington, Chittenden County retool to take on the heroin epidemic

A VTDigger story published in February revealed that people seeking treatment for opioid addiction in northwestern Vermont had been waiting on average almost a year for a slot in the region’s main treatment program.

At one point in late 2015, three-quarters of people waitlisted for opioid addiction treatment were waiting for a spot in the Chittenden Clinic in South Burlington.

Elected officials began to push the University of Vermont Medical Center to treat more people for addiction in the second half of 2015, a campaign that continued into 2016.

The hospital responded, increasing the number of doctors licensed to prescribe the treatment medication buprenorphine from 25 in December, 2015, to 46 in October, 2016.

In addition, UVM Medical Center expanded an outpatient clinic helping more people transition from the Chittenden Clinic to less intensive office-based care, further reducing wait times for those entering treatment.

Wait times for treatment at the Chittenden Clinic are down to months or weeks, though officials say the goal is to further reduce the wait to hours or days.

The state also plans to open a new intensive outpatient clinic in St. Albans in early 2017, thereby reducing the number of people traveling long distances for daily medication and therapy.

Burlington launched a data driven initiative to tackle opioid addiction in the Queen City, hiring a Opioid Policy Manager and convening regular stakeholder meetings to try and free the city from the grips of an epidemic.

At the same time, 2016 saw the ascendance of powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which are becoming increasingly common in street heroin supply, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration report from June.

In August, VTDigger reported the story of two brothers who fatally overdosed on fentanyl together in the summer of 2015.

Fentanyl related overdose deaths continue to drive morbidity in the heroin crisis, with fentanyl present in 34 percent of the 47 opioid overdoses in the first half of 2016, according to the latest figures from the Health Department.

Just five years ago, in 2011, fentanyl was present in just 8 percent of opioid overdoses.

Voters pave the way for transformative downtown redevelopment

For much of 2016, city politics was dominated by discussions of a proposal to redevelop the Town Center Mall, replacing it with a mixed-use project including housing, offices and retail space.

Mall owner Don Sinex, the developer behind the project, said in order to make the project feasible the building would need to exceed current height limits downtown.

In May, the City Council approved a predevelopment agreement with Sinex that included new zoning allowing taller buildings in a portion of downtown. That led to rancorous public debate over taller buildings, and a project that opponents allege is geared to the city’s affluent residents.

Out of that debate emerged a grassroots collective of activists, many of whom had won a previous zoning battle with the city over residential housing in the South End arts district, who mounted stiff opposition to the project and its zoning.

When it became clear that the group, the Coalition for a Livable City, planned to gather signatures and force a special election to vote on the new zoning, the mayor worked with city councilors to put the zoning on the November ballot.

Both sides waged a heated campaign, with the mayor and his allies outspending the coalition by at least a three-to-one margin.

The new zoning and another measure allowing the city to issue $22 million in tax increment financing bonds to pay for new city streets surrounding the project passed muster with voters.

A few weeks later, Sinex held a news conference announcing his development team and saying he had raised the $200 million he needs to finance the redevelopment.

Then in the second half of December, Sinex submitted his permit application to the city, along with a check for $390,000 in application fees. The regulatory process will begin in 2017, and could take four to six months.

Burlington College shuts down, sells remaining property to developer

In May, just two weeks after the city approved its agreement with Sinex, Burlington College announced that it would close because of the “crushing weight of debt” the school incurred to buy a lakefront property in 2011.

That purchase was financed with more than $10 million in loans taken out by former college president Jane Sanders, wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Not long after the purchase, Jane Sanders was forced out by the board and given a generous severance package. The school was never able to increase enrollment as she’d envisioned, and the school spiraled into debt.

Then in spring 2016, college trustees found out that the school’s main creditor, People’s United Bank, would not increase a line of credit and the board voted, just one day before commencement, to close the school.

While the college was winding down its affairs over the summer, the building was vandalized and robbed in a case that remains unsolved, despite police having identified a suspect — a man who was arrested in Troy, New York, with a Burlington College van and stolen college computers.

No charges have been filed against the suspect in Vermont, and officials in New York never filed possession of stolen property charges.

People’s United Bank the Vermont Economic Development Authority and a number of other Burlington College creditors are likely to lose money as a result of the school’s dissolution.

An auction of the college’s remaining property in early December was anticipated to bring in $50,000 or $60,000, not nearly enough to cover the school’s remaining debt.

Developer Eric Farrell, who had already purchased much of the 33 acre property, signed a contract to buy the remaining classroom building, and sold the city 12 acres for $2 million, which will become a public park.

Farrell has since submitted permit applications to build more than 700 units of housing and 45,000 feet of commercial space in 10 buildings on the former college property.

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Morgan True

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