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Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Burlington's Not That Comfortable with Tall Buildings"-Joan Shannon (A Report from Last Night's Planning Commission Meeting)

It seemed pretty hot in the police station last night, despite the air-conditioning, as planning commissioners wrangled with city staff and the returning chair of the commission, Yves Bradley, who has missed the last few meetings. Joan Shannon, City Councilor, Wards 5 and 6, slipped in and gave Emily Lee a document from a small gathering of members of the Form Based Code committee, which Emily Lee then read to the commission and the citizens present, suggesting that the People's Bank parking lot be removed from the area under consideration for re-zoning. When asked for her opinion of why the form-based code committee suggested such a thing, Joan Shannon, who has been advocating vociferously for the swift acceptance of this new zoning code and the development of three 14-story buildings with which they are inextricably associated, admitted, "Well, Burlington's not that comfortable with tall buildings". Yet even this request for a small exempted area for this new overlay district was resisted by David White and Yves Bradley who advocated "from a planning perspective" for what they continually kept calling "flexibility": "why continue to limit" height or mass, Yves asked? Why indeed, when the majority of the city is against such "flexibility"! Bruce baker chimed in, noting that there should be "some kind of planning" for that area, as if the current zoning were not in itself a plan, as if planning were equivalent with an anything goes flexibility in all directions.  Yves kept saying, "with all due respect" to Emily Lee, but he hardly seemed respectful. More condescending than anything else. And this from the man who has presumably been on vacation while Emily and others have been diligently working on these difficult problems over the last few weeks. His "planner's perspective," moreover, may be more of a developer's perspective or a perspective of a real estate professional who has a vested interest in creating more retail space downtown. And this conflict of interest was duly noted by at least three citizens during the public comment time. He said he would be happy to recuse himself, but there was no official discussion of whether or not he would.

Adding even more confusion to the discussion of leaving the People's Bank building in the new zone is the fact that Form Based Code, which has neither been completed for this area nor approved or adopted by the City Council either in its specifications or even its basic premises as a planning tool, is continually used as justification for the decisions being made. Cart before horse, as usual. This problem is all the more serious when it comes to a question of whether the city wants to adopt entirely new methods of gaining public benefits. Form Based Code is apparently working toward a system which eliminates public benefits or bonuses in exchange for concessions in building height and other regulations. In lieu of the kinds of percentage-related benefits now required for extras, this new system would establish once and for all (until overturned) what any developer could do at any particular spot. But once it is set, the public will have no say. Oh well, Don't be surprised if a developer soon will be allowed to do anything he damn well pleases without providing anything more than the minimum of affordable or senior housing.

The order of the evening was to approve a summary of the commission's recommendations for the city council on the zoning change. "Staff" (David White and Meagan Tuttle) presented the commissioners with a summary of what they had supposedly said, along with notes saying what "staff" recommended (always that the proposal be adopted as is). The lines that were a source of contention at the end of last week's meeting (lines that indicated that the city council strongly recommended some aspects of the zoning change when, in fact, they had not strongly recommended anything) had been discretely removed; but now there were new misrepresentations. Lee Buffinton, Emily Lee, and Andy Montroll all had cause during the meeting to correct the statements in "staff's" summary. First off was a statement claiming that the commission supports "by right" height and massing. Neither Lee nor Emily agreed that this had been established. Emily Lee insisted that the majority of commissioners do not feel comfortable with a by right allowance, and that she wants to see a model before supporting anything at all. Andy, who was not yet present, probably also would not have agreed, as he had considerable objections to this assumption the week before.  "We did not vote" Lee Buffinton reminded White and Tuttle.

At this point, Buffinton requested permission to read a letter she had written to her fellow commissioners (please see entire text of this public record below), expressing serious concerns about the zoning rewrite and its non-compliance with our comprehensive plan (Plan BTV). The zoning change, she wrote, would be a major change in policy that has little basis in Plan BTV and Form based code. The change would, further, be at odds with section 6 of the zoning ordinance regarding neighborhood proportions of scale and mass. The change allowing "by right" height and mass increases would constitute a fundamental policy shift which would counter Plan BTV's emphasis on creating a variety of housing options, and more. The full room broke out in applause for Lee Buffinton's letter, because it thrillingly but simply stated what any reasonable concerned citizen would think. It was not radical; not overly idealistic; merely completely sane. But in this strange land, reigned over by the White Prince of Wonderland and the invisible Wizard of Oz (Miro), everything is topsy-turvy.

Buffinton's letter expressed concern over the legality of the zoning change, but instead of responding to this clear statement about the fundamental flaws and dangers of this change, David White-washed the statement away, as if he were literally incapable of hearing its import or details, and steered the conversation elsewhere. Bradley smiled from his position front right, and the obfuscation in the interest of a flexible planning perspective continued.

A rather long argument about the various benefits and drawbacks of inclusionary zoning percentages being required or asked for in bonus form ensued, with David White repeating some truisms from last week's meeting about how benefits and bonuses have not worked very well in the past (perhaps because they are not well enough enforced?! Perhaps they need to be stricter, broader, better, rather than eliminated altogether), and with Yves Bradley noting that inclusionary requirements are seen as a "penalty". We wondered in the audience if this was from a "planning perspective" again,  or from the perspective of a developer like Yves. From the perspective of a citizen needing an affordable apartment, they certainly would not be seen as a penalty.

When the discussion of the specific height allowance in the zoning change came up, the commissioners continued to wrangle. While Tuttle and White's summary admitted that the commissioners had not reached a consensus on the height, they only provided two alternatives (one being to allow the building to go to 14 stories and the other to allow the total maximum that would be allowed in mass at a lower height in the new zoning proposed). Lee Buffinton noted that the third alternative under discussion had been completely left out, indeed, the one favored by the people: Make the project work within the current height and mass limits. It was agreed upon, but only after Andy Montroll insisted, that Lee Buffinton's alternative be added to the suggestions. Emily Lee disagreed with limiting height increases per se, but noted that without a physical model or better images they did not have the right tools to make a good decision. Although Lee Buffinton warned that a change of this dimension would be precedent setting, Bruce Baker denied it, insisting that the commissioners have the authority to make this change (what this has to do with precedent setting is unclear). I suppose Baker was referring to the question of whether the commission might be committing a crime by changing the zoning. White, again, asserted that the change is in compliance with Plan BTV's general aim of promoting infill and density.

Although Emily Lee did not seem concerned with changing heights to allow 14 stories when the buildings are off Church Street, even though such a change would be at odds with the comprehensive plan, she continues to use Form based code, which has not been adopted or approved by the council or the citizens, as something that should justify changes or the lack thereof. Thus she advocated for keeping Church Street heights as they are, a recommendation which Meagan Tuttle and David White did not deem important enough to add to the notes for the council. Although I agree with keeping Church Street heights as they are, why should form based code be the basis of any decisions before the planning commission at this time? Surely, much time and energy has been put into this arduous process, but that does not make it an official planning document and it certainly should not take precedence over our current zoning or Plan BTV.

Some other things to watch and wonder about:

FAR: The FAR (floor area ration) allowed to a developer is being raised by this zoning change. This change seems to justify raising the building up to 14 stories or bulking it out to a "maximum build-out" far (FAR) beyond what is now allowed. Where did this ratio come from? It once was 5.5 (White says 8.5, but elsewhere we  read 5.5. Maybe it is 5.5 on Church and 8.5 elsewhere?): but now it would be 9.5. If you, like I, wonder what that means, basically it just means more area covered. Less green space, less air space, less sky, less sidewalk, less of everything but building.

More Conflicts of Interest: A special committee has been set up consisting of some members of Sinex's development team, two city councilors (Jane Knodell and Karen Paul)  and two planning commissioners (Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur and Bruce Baker), and funded by the developer to the tune of $150,000 to....to do what exactly? Presumably to make sure that the development gets approval. Although councilors and planning commissioners are surely not receiving money for being on this committee, they are subject to influence by consultants who are paid for by the developer. Meagan Tuttle calls these consultants objective, but the first rule of research methods analysis is to examine who is funding the research. Should people who are on this committee now be considered impartial judges of the project?By the way, even the developer's paid consultants seem to have come up with something that has not been mentioned in any of the meetings or sketch plan reviews: according to one consultant, one of the streets under consideration for construction is inappropriate to be made into a street for cars, and possibly also for bicycles. The consultant notes the grade of the street as well as the buildings in the way, and recommends that this area be left a pedestrian only zone. So much for complete streets, buses, and all that jazz.

During public comment time several people commented on the impropriety of David White's clear bias in favor of the developer and his forceful manipulation of the members of the commission. Others, as noted above, spoke to the problem of Yves Bradley's conflict of interest. New voices spoke in favor of sanity, quality of life, and preserving our current zoning. Many noted that Lee Buffinton had spoken for many people who were concerned about the utter madness of this proposal, its breakneck speed, the way it contradicts our comprehensive plan, the way it ignores the concerns of the public.

Next week is the public hearing at Contois Auditorium (July 6th, 6 p.m.). Please come and ask the commission to vote NO on this proposal to change our zoning.

1 comment:

  1. Genese..........thanks for the concise and eloquent interpretation of what went down at the last PC meeting. The supporters of the mall, in my opinion, have maxed out in public support. The CLC has brought it's momentum to a halt. It seems that our task is to maximize our visible presence in the community and help channel the opposition to the mall, and Miro's gentrification agenda as a whole, across many fronts. Once again, thanks for the effort that went into this.

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