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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