UPDATED: Local activist to challenge Burlington city council president

Note: This story was updated at 2:50 p.m. on Friday Jan. 13.

BURLINGTON — Longtime Old North End resident and activist Genese Grill has announced her candidacy for City Council, vowing to put residents’ needs before business interests.

For several years, Grill has led grassroots opposition to the city of Burlington’s redevelopment efforts.

Now she wants to fight from inside City Hall.

Nearly 50 supporters cheered Grill on Thursday as she announced her bid outside the McLure Multigenerational Center for the Central District seat now held by Jane Knodell. Grill is running as an independent.

At their Thursday caucus, Democrats threw their support behind Knodell, a Progressive and the current council president, nominating her as the party’s candidate for the Central District.

Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger, who has worked closely with Knodell, gave an impassioned call for his party to back the Progressive in her campaign to stave off a challenge from the left.

Weinberger said in a statement Friday that Knodell faced “a hijacking of her party by a no-growth, reactionary fringe,” and praised her efforts to “create economic opportunities and improve equity by growing and investing in the city.”

Genese Grill
North End artist, resident and activist Genese Grill announced her candidacy for Burlington City Council. She is running against the council president Jane Knodell. Photo by Emily Greenberg/VTDigger

Grill has been a renter in the Old North End for 20 years. She’s a cofounder of the Coalition for a Livable City, a local organization that advocates for public spaces and livable wages. She also serves on the board of the South End Alliance, a group of artists and business owners who hope to preserve the South End as a vibrant, affordable arts community. Gentrification of the area could make it too expensive for artists to live in the neighborhood, she said.

“Cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle are becoming less, not more affordable,” Grill said in the speech she had prepared. “In Burlington, too, this has become the norm.”

Grill promised to give citizens more say in city planning efforts. She enumerated decisions made by city officials that she says have hurt local residents. As an example, she cited the closing of the North End Beverage Center where many homeless people would cash in recyclables. The center was sold to the Burlington real estate and development company Redstone.

“Wards 2 and 3 [which make up the Central District] are home to many of the creative, visionary artists and activists, new Americans, poor and working families that make up this vibrant city,” she said. “The Emergency Food Shelf may still be here, but what will it look like under the current vision of renovate and raise the rent?”

This is Grill’s first time running for office. Knodell has been criticized by Grill and her fellow activists for supporting development projects in the city. Grill was a forceful opponent of the Town Center redevelopment project and helped lead the campaign defeat two ballot measures related to the project.

In November, Wards 2 and 3 voted in favor of $22 million in tax increment financing that will pay for public improvements that are part of the massive Town Center redevelopment project, but they voted against new zoning that will allow the project to go forward.

“The way I read those results is the district was split on the downtown project,” Knodell said in an interview Friday, “They voted for the TIF, so that says they’re willing to put some public investment into this mixed-use redevelopment, but they voted against the new zoning, which I read as them saying ‘we’re worried about the scale,’”

Old North End resident Maggie Standley, who attended Grill’s campaign launch event, voted for Knodell in the past, but will stand with Grill, she said, on Town Meeting Day, March 7.

“Knodell is extremely bright, connected, and knows how the city works,” Standley said. “Unfortunately, when it comes to the democratic process she’s not advocating for the citizens.”

Burlington Progressives nominated Charles Winkleman to run for the East District City Council seat. Winkleman is a graduate of the University of Vermont and a preschool teacher at the Burlington Children’s Space. He has been the chair for the City Steering Committee for two years and also serves on the board of the Fletcher Free Library.

Winkleman said he hopes to create more stable housing situations in his district by pressing for lower prices, on-campus housing options for UVM students, and to see more balance in the district between student renters and long-term residents.

The Progressive also said he would pressure Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger on early childhood education initiatives and to promote paid family leave, which would encourage young families and professionals to move to and stay in Burlington.

“I think I’m uniquely qualified to fight for those issues,” he said.

In addition to Knodell, the Burlington Democratic Party nominated incumbent Joan Shannon in the South District and incumbent Dave Hartnett, an Independent and former Democrat, in the North District.

Progressives have nominated Charles Simpson to run in the South Distirct. The retired professor is a member of the Coalition for a Livable city and has been active with the Town Center opposition.

Democrats nominated Richard Deane to face off with Winkleman in the East District. Deane is an architect with the Burlington firm TruexCullins and chair of the Burlington Business Association.

VTDigger reporter Morgan True contributed to this report.

Genese Grill
Nearly 50 people gathered to support Genese Grill for Burlington City Council. Photo by Emily Greenberg/VTDigger

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  • Charlie Messing

    Genese would be the right candidate to represent Wards 2 and 3. These wards voted against the development proposal of Mr. Sinex and the Mayor, but Ms. Knodell was for the project, campaigning fiercely to convince residents of its merit. The CLC represented the people, and Ms. Knodell did not. Jane Knodell is out of touch with the people she proposes to represent. Look into it – Genese represents the people of her district, and belongs on the City Council.

    • Tony Redington

      Will not disagree the Mayor and Knodell campaigned fiercely for more than doubling the size of a Mall by changing zoning, but they also fiercely spent money including corporate money outspending supporters of planBTV by more than 6-1. Very likely the fierce money not the fierce campaigning got the votes,

  • James Mason

    I thank Dr. Knodell for her service, but it’s time for her to step aside for a new city council member who isn’t beholden to special interests and isn’t in lockstep with the Mayor.

  • Michael Watson

    It is time to have a smart, compassionate, independent voice on city council. Thank you, Genese.

  • “Residents’ needs before business interests” is the key phrase here. Grill and other candidates and citizens dissatisfied with the status quo, do not oppose development or re-development that respects residents’ interests.

    The controversial mall re-development was approved on a fast track that sidelined democracy at every opportunity. Zoning law was re-written according to the developer’s dictates and rubber stamped by the city council. The city did not plan to put this question on the ballot. They were compelled to.

    The Central District, Wards 2 & 3, voted against this slick zoning change, though business interests were able to spend $62,000 to gain city wide approval.

    • Paco DeFrancis

      The opposition absolutely oppose development here in Ward 3. The concessions they demand from developers renders any project here financially unfeasible. Our city’s permitting process (from the oppressive DRB to the regressive Inclusionary Zoning policy) already pushes many potential projects and their capital investment to neighboring South Burlington, Williston and Winooski. Sadly, more and more developers are increasingly choosing to leave Chittenden County and take their capital out of state where they don’t face onerous zoning AND the exceptionally high commercial Education Fund property tax rate in Vermont.

      Private businesses and firms are who develop land; we don’t live in a socialist country or state and we can’t can’t grow from HUD and BHA develops alone.

      An unwillingness to compromise with developers on the Ward’s “Residents’ needs” is synonymous with one being anti-growth and anti-development.

      • Donna Walters

        Perhaps we haven’t yet found the right developer who is in touch with the values, vision and needs of our community. The big boxy mall as proposed looks like it would fit in nicely in Williston. I don’t think this is the what Burlingtonians envision for their historic downtown. Who approved that hideous new CVS on Church St? It’s garish!

  • Barbara McGrew

    This is such good news for Wards 2/3 and all of Burlington. We need city councilors who have a truly progressive vision for the city and who will listen to and represent their constituents. Genese will be just such a councilor. You go, girl!

  • I am 100% behind Genese Grill who has consistently and intelligently spoken out for what the people who actually live in theses neighborhoods want and need to keep Burlington affordable for all and beautiful for future generations. We do NOT want to become a “Hard Rock Cafe” city!!!

  • Morgan, Is Jane running as a Dem or Progressive? This article makes it sound like she is running as a Dem when you say:

    In addition to Knodell, the Burlington Democratic Party nominated incumbent Joan Shannon in the South District and incumbent Dave Hartnett, an Independent and former Democrat, in the North District.

  • Genese Grill is a progressive in the true sense of the word. She is about creative redevelopment so Burlington evolves without losing it’s heart.

  • Councilor Knodell’s reading of the results on questions 2 & 3 should perhaps also consider that she might have fallen out of step with the Central District.

    It’s quite extraordinary that these wards voted against the zoning change, given the onslaught of lobbyist advertising dollars spent to buy voter approval.

    The TIF question did better in every ward and only passed in her district by +/-2%. The mayor and the Council deliberately misrepresented TIF as cost free public improvements without risk. This pitch, along with the questions themselves being drafted to create advantageous confusion, may better explain how the TIF question passed in the Central District and elsewhere.

  • robert bristow-johnson

    I think Jane might have expected to be challenged from her left after supporting Q3 and Q4 so unreservedly. She hadn’t made the case for Q3 and Q4 to her own constituency.

  • Phyllis North

    This story is all about Progressives and Democrats. Are there any Republicans in Burlington?

    • In elective office I think only the forthright Kurt and quite a few under cover independents, dems, and progs.

  • Kylie Dally

    It seems the mayor and others on the council have narrowly defined growth to mean fourteen story buildings and development on vital wildlife corridors. But there are many other ways to grow. Genese Grill is an artist, a creator, a community organizer, intimately familiar with the processes of growth and decay and rebirth, creation and destruction and inspiration. If the mayor truly cares about the healthy growth of this city then he should welcome Genese as an expert on growth. Genese creates spaces where art is made, food is shared, voices are heard, music is played, life is lived. She has helped me grow as an artist by managing our collective art studio, connecting me with other community members, teaching me new skills, and offering endless encouragement. And I know I’m not the only one.

  • Amey Radcliffe

    After months of educational fliers, city council speeches and online dialogue, those who opposed a zoning change to allow 14-story buildings are reduced to sound bites of “no growth” or anti-growth”. The mayor is not listening or he’s unwilling to acknowledge the real concerns of nearly half the voters. Growth is good when thoughtful and following true public process—when it takes the most vulnerable citizens into account along and a changing climate. PlanBTV, our guiding public document was ignored when it came to a handshake with a developer to re-zone the city center. That pre-development agreement was essentially unchanged by public opposition. Now the mayor demonstrates further misunderstanding of citizens. The “fringe” he talks of are all the hard working people in Burlington who have trouble affording market rate housing and living on less than livable wages. I delighted that Genese Grill has stepped up to represent wards 2/3, independent of party agendas and Miro cronyism.

  • Donna Walters

    I support Genese Grill for City Council. She understands grass-roots advocacy and will work tirelessly to represent the voices of the people in her district.

  • Elizabeth WIlliams

    I would prefer to support a candidate who doesn’t engage in the type of campaigning and actions that I’ve seen thus far. I was especially disheartened to read that Ms. Grill attempted to spread information that hurt Bernie’s campaign last year, because his wife dismissed her from a teaching post, or some such thing. We’ve had enough of this type of behavior on the national stage. I hope Burlington sticks with Jane Knodell on City Council, who has a proven track record of years of service to her community with integrity and fairness.