Business & Economy

Housing and art options considered for Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium

Memorial Auditorium in Burlington seen on Wednesday, February 19, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Burlington has received three proposals for redevelopment of the shuttered Memorial Auditorium. 

One calls for an immersive art experience, another envisions the return of a youth-led performance space, and the third would create 40 apartments and a community space. 

The deadline for submitting proposals passed last week. Brian Pine, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Office, said a selection committee is reviewing the submissions and will likely make a recommendation to the City Council in January.

The developer pitching the housing option, Hawthorne Development Corp., has already raised questions by devoting a full page in its proposal to taking credit for CityPlace, the downtown development project at the former mall site along Church Street. 

But CityPlace owners confirmed that Hawthorne does not have an active role in the project. The discrepancy was first reported by Seven Days.

Paul Hodes, whose organization Shanti Energy is consulting with Hawthorne on the Memorial Auditorium project, said in an interview on Thursday that he is responsible for the error of including the CityPlace claim. 

Hodes said he used an outdated corporate brochure for Hawthorne that was written at a time when the developer was negotiating with former CityPlace owner Don Sinex about buying ownership of the project. The company was hopeful about the discussions at the time, but then Sinex sold his ownership stake to the current CityPlace partners. 

Hodes said he vetted the Memorial Auditorium proposal with Hawthorne, but did not show the company the last several pages, which came from the old brochure.

The north side of Memorial Auditorium in Burlington on Thursday, November 17, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Dave Farrington, head of Farrington Construction and part of the CityPlace ownership group, said in an email on Thursday that Hawthorne had previously approached the group about involvement.

However, Farrington said, there are currently no outside partners linked to the project.

VTDigger reached Ganesan Visvabharathy, chair of Hawthorne Development, by phone on Thursday. When asked directly about CityPlace, he said, “We can talk later” and ended the call.

Hawthorne’s description of CityPlace accurately reflects some aspects of the project such as the number of units planned for the building. But it also includes some inaccurate features, such as a WeWork area, library, swimming pools, cabanas, golf simulator and a fish tank lounge.

In its proposal for Memorial Auditorium, the Illinois-based developer said it planned 40 apartment units and 3,000 to 3,500 square feet of community space with a total project cost of $20 million.

“We envision converting the 57,562 of gross square footage to multi-floored space for residential living, commercial and public activities,” the proposal states.

The group said it plans to maintain the building’s historic exterior and described the housing as “tasteful but compact apartments designed to accommodate workforce housing, student rentals, working veterans, and market rate units.”

Pine said in a text message on Thursday that Hawthorne’s claim about CityPlace “does not disqualify their proposal per se, but will be considered in the review process.”

Memorial Auditorium in Burlington seen on Wednesday, February 19, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The immersive art proposal comes from a local group called Babaroosa, founded by Theresa and Robert Davis.

Babaroosa’s proposal calls for devoting 26,000 square feet to an “experiential space” at a cost of about $36 million, relying on some financial support from the city, state and federal governments through tax credits and grants.

“Often grand in size and scale, these elaborate installations use light, sound, and multimedia technologies to create captivating environments that visitors not only observe but also interact with,” the proposal states. “It's an engrossing, multisensory experience that invites viewers to actively engage with their surroundings and become participants in the exhibit.” 

Babaroosa had been working on a similar art development in Essex, but the Davises said in an interview on Thursday that the pitch for Memorial would be a “relocation” and that only one project is planned. 

Their plan for the auditorium would also include a workshop, gift shop, offices and event spaces, as well as areas for community use and a youth art space. The Veterans Memorial at the building would remain, according to the proposal.

The team said it intends to keep the auditorium’s historic facade, which Pine said is a requirement for any proposal to develop the property.

A third proposal from Burlington’s Big Heavy World, a music advocacy nonprofit, addresses only one of the city’s several goals for redevelopment — youth-centered arts programming — and is designed to be a “collaborative” approach, according to executive director Jim Lockridge.

Jim Lockridge stands outside the part of Memorial Auditorium that used to house teen club 242 Main in Burlington on Thursday, November 17, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Under the Big Heavy World plan, 242 Main would be “reactivated as a youth-led performing arts and community center that functions as a public commons between youth programs.” The teen center, launched in the 1980s, evolved into a youth-led performance space and frequent stop for a variety of bands and performers. All-ages concerts were hosted there until the auditorium’s closure in 2016.

Lockridge has been waging a vocal campaign to preserve 242 Main’s youth-centered programming and has been a critic of the city’s approach to the auditorium.

“It's a humble, partial proposal for those specific spaces,” Lockridge said in an interview on Thursday. He said he would invite other developers who are submitting more complete proposals to “feel welcome to integrate our interests in their visions.”

Lockridge's proposal did not indicate a total price tag for the project, but identified grant sources that could range from $125,000 to $305,000.

Lockridge said 242 Main could be revived alongside the Babaroosa proposal, which he supports as “complementary.” His endorsement is quoted in that team’s documentation.

Memorial Auditorium was built in 1927 in dedication to World War I veterans. Plans for redevelopment have been discussed since its closure in 2016. 

Pine said in earlier interviews that the Covid-19 pandemic halted the momentum of earlier redevelopment efforts. Now that the city finds its borrowing power limited by the bond that’s been approved to build a new Burlington High School, the city has turned to the private sector for a partnership.

The city was recently authorized to spend up to $1 million to address some of the most pressing concerns at Memorial Auditorium, such as shoring up the roof, addressing some structural issues and replacing a heating system.

The cornerstone of Memorial Auditorium in Burlington reads 1927 in Roman numerals. Seen on Thursday, November 17, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Patrick Crowley

About Patrick

Patrick Crowley is VTDigger's Burlington Reporter. Previously, he has worked for the Brattleboro Reformer and wrote as a freelance reporter in Ventura County, California. Patrick is a musician and volunteers as a firefighter and advanced EMT.

Email: pcrowley@vtdigger.org

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