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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