Commentary

Joseph Ament: Burlington Town Center a lose-lose

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Joseph A. Ament, of Burlington, who is a Ph.D. student at the University of Vermont.

The Burlington Town Center rehabilitation was sold to the public as an environmental win, a social equalizer and an economic boon. But when Burlington voters narrowly approved the zoning and financing necessary for the project to move ahead, they had been misled and confused. When Mayor Miro Weinberger called the City Council elections — in which his pro-mall contingents were elected — a mandate, he wrongly assumed that the vote was a referendum on the project. Taken together, the mayor has acted as a lobbyist for special interests rather than an advocate for the Burlington community.

One of the most troubling aspects of the BTC project is the systematic transfer of wealth from the community to a small group of private corporations. The Sinex project proposes to layer 14 profit-generating stories atop $22 million in public infrastructure. Without public funds, however, the project would not break ground. In fact, were Sinex to finance the structure upon which his proposal rests, his return on investment would likely be red. Burlington residents are essentially paying millions of dollars to deliver windfall profits to a wealthy developer. This classic neoliberal tactic of leveraging public wealth for private gain behooves us to ask what Burlington gets in return.

The answer is complex. In addition to more shopping and 215 luxury condos, we lose 75 percent of future tax-revenue increases and risk overwhelming our water, waste, and traffic infrastructure. In order to repay the TIF bond, commerce downtown must increase dramatically. (As the name tax-increment financing implies, 75 percent of future tax revenues are designated to pay off the bond and the remaining 25 percent are used to cover the increased pressure on public utilities — a funding supply that always falls short of the demand, burdening municipal budgets so much that TIF bonds have been outlawed in many states including California.) With this necessary increase in commerce comes increased traffic (vehicular and pedestrian) and massive pressure on our already burdened public infrastructure. To not burden these infrastructures means cannibalizing current vendors and defaulting on the bond.

In order to convince Burlington voters to accept this pernicious deal, Weinberger betrayed his role as mayor and donned his lobbyist hat. Painting the whole project with the term “revitalization,” he sold our commons on the promise that doing so would create jobs and affordable housing while improving the local environment.

And as a revitalization project, I’m on board! The mall is dreary and the parking lot is falling apart — though I am rather partial to the nook created by the truncated Pine Street. The problem, however, is that the revitalization we all welcome comes at the expense of 14 stories that will cast shadows upon Church Street, destroy the views of the Adirondacks, and ruin the skyline from Lake Champlain. I speak for thousands when I wholeheartedly throw my support behind a five-story mixed-use building.

The revitalization we all welcome comes at the expense of 14 stories that will cast shadows upon Church Street, destroy the views of the Adirondacks, and ruin the skyline from Lake Champlain.

 

Such an effort, however, would betray the neoliberal, trickle-down panacea that has Weinberger so giddy. His explicit faith that the private sector will deliver the jobs, housing, and tax revenue we need aligns well with the mayor’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders — a move that was heavily at odds with his constituency.

Simply put, the mayor is an explicit champion of corporate interests, a blind devotee to the private sector, and out of touch with the wants and needs of his community.

In fact, the mayor is so out of touch with his community that the affordable housing that he claims solidifies his position as an advocate of the people consists of $950 studios and $1,050 one-bedroom units. This “affordability” price was calculated using a federal standard for affordability. But when the baseline metric for affordability is calculated using inflated home prices and is heavily weighted by the sheer number of units in unaffordable cities, it renders the claim inefficacious at best!

(To put a $950 studio in perspective, I lived in a studio on Waikiki Beach from 2011-2013 and paid $1,000. Weinberger thinks that a $50 discount against a studio on the most famous beach in the world constitutes affordability!)

Stepping back a bit, the biggest problem with the BTC is the lack of critical thought that was put into its proposal. The tough questions were never asked. Opposition was broadly cast as “anti-development” without ever asking what development truly means. Populist platitudes such as “environmental win,” “affordable housing,” and “job creator” were thrown around without serious concern for their veracity or desirability. And the precedent for 20-story buildings to “revitalize” Barge Canal or the Waterfront is frightening. Critical thought would have revealed a mutually beneficial five-story mall revitalization where Sinex would make some money and the community would be better off for the modernized downtown.

Instead, the mayor assumed the only way to repair a crumbling parking lot was to coax the public into building a foundation that will funnel profits to Sinex.

Let me say that I am a huge advocate of revitalizing the downtown corridor — and the rest of the city for that matter. And kudos to Weinberger for his successful projects! The Burlington Town Center proposal, however, is a lose-lose for the city. It destroys our valuable — though incalculable — view, siphons future public funds to future private profit, and poses great threat on the city’s already burdened water, waste and traffic infrastructures. In return we are given a shaded Church Street, more shopping and consumption, and three years of cranes and bulldozer noise along one of the greatest pedestrian malls in the world.

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  • Anthony Redington

    Wonderful, accurate and precise economic, political and urban development analysis! Of course 57 Burlingtonians, myself included, now pursue at least two court actions for numerous intentional law violations by zillionaire Sinex and his “public partners” Mayor Weinberger and the majority of the City Council. The 57 citizens include many unassociated with the most visible project opponent, the Coalition for Livable City (CLC). CLC clearly supports planBTV, our City’s official vision for the downtown future and a feasible project as Mr. Ament describes of a few floors, mixed use! Those legal violations do not involve as Mr. Ament recounts the numerous mis-statements and misleading claims by proponents. Does anyone realize Sinex and the Mayor never bothered to secure Act 250 review exemption?

    A final design surprise directly threatens to the economic health of the Marketplace businesses by erasing 500 existing parking spaces adjacent to LL Bean and never replacing them. Weinberger and Sinex provide 700+ valet parking spaces (about a dozen of those high paying jobs covering 24/7, 365 days a year!) not even enough to supply the residential housing and new office space demands! Tony Redington, Burlington

  • Elise Eaton

    Finally, a broad and yet equally pointed assessment of development run amok under Weinberger’s administration. As mentioned early on in this piece, the mayor’s elected minions share equal blame for misleading and pushing this agenda. I for one, am actively researching where to move out of state.

  • Karen Rowell

    This mayor uses “fuzzy math” on a regular basis to push what he wants. And you are correct – what he wants supports outside groups rather than the people he represents. After watching the North Ave. fiasco it became clear that any stats coming from the Progressives was not to be trusted. It was either an apples to oranges scenario or flat out usage of studies done in other states because the $150K study they did on North Ave. didn’t support their claims. So sad that he and the Burlington council are ruining what was once such a great city. And Miro isn’t going to have to see that building right outside HIS window and stare at it everyday.
    Unfortunately VT Digger has taken a side on the unwanted North Ave. bike lanes and does not look into Chapin Spencer, (former Local Motion executive director who does not have an engineering degree required for his position) being given the power and platform to present untrue data results (documented) regarding the first survey and preliminary results. They won’t report on the glaringly obvious conflicts of interest regarding the process on this issue. They won’t report on his documented examples (on film) of reporting false stats throughout this process.
    Any numbers presented by him are not to be believed. He plays the Press like a fiddle and they turn a complete blind eye to the conflicts of interest. Sad that the truth on this issue is so often omitted.
    The latest is the Progressive and Democrat elitists have once again left Burlington’s lower income residents behind by taking out ALL of the free parking at Oakledge and putting in what? Bike Lanes! The rich bikers win again – they make up less than one percent of the population in this city and are the only people getting representation because they cow tow to Local Motion – Chapin’s team. These Progressives have obviously never worked hard all day at a low-pay job and wanted to go to the beach but could not afford to get in. Only the RICH win with these people. Backed up traffic/crumbling sidewalks/no parking – JUST BIKE LANES for the one percent. A little hypocritical? Yup.

  • Michael Long

    Joseph Ament has provided compelling and well grounded analysis that supports sensible community minded development. The Weinberger model relies instead on public dollars to inflate private profits and on compliant politicians to hard sell the scheme.

    Unfortunately, local media outlets have adopted the Weinberger storyline and assisted him in marginalizing the significant portion of the community calling, like Ament, for development that is more appropriate. That storyline amounts to news coverage of the Fox sort, not bedrock journalism of the kind necessary to support democracy.

    The first responsibility of elected officials is to the community, not the developer. The same applies to media outlets who aspire to delivering more than PR and advertising.

    A project designed according to the rules rather than regardless of them, one designed with the community in mind, would have been a project the community could embrace.

  • Lea Terhune
  • John farrell

    Hmmmmm. since when is a $950 studio and a $1,050 1 bedroom apartment designated AFFORDABEL HOUSING?” That calculus is totally wrong.

  • Finn Yarbrough

    This is a specific case, but is also a well-written critique of the assumptions and shortfalls of neoliberal economic policy in general. For those who may not be familiar with the term, “neoliberal” as a moniker applies across the board to the financial policy of the Clintons, the Bushes, Obama, and also Trump, perhaps the most of all.