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 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.

Lee Buffinton's Letter to her Fellow Planning Commissioners about the Proposed Zoning Change

From: Lee Buffinton <>
Date: June 29, 2016 at 9:36:08 AM EDT
To: Meagan Tuttle <>, "David E. White" <>, Yves Bradley <>, "" <>, "" <>, Emily Lee <>, "Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur (" <>, Harris Roen <>
Subject: Communication for discussion at June 29th meeting and for the record
To my fellow Planning Commissioners,

Vermont Law is very clear-  Local zoning regulations must conform to the municipal plan.  For Downtown Burlington that municipal plan is planBTV Downtown & Waterfront adopted after extensive public involvement.  Our planning packet materials for the various zoning amendments before us emphasize that it's important to "comply with the Pre-Development Agreement" for the mall project, but what is far more imperative and required by law is that we comply with our municipal plan.

Clearly plan BTV and all of us on the Planning Commission support a vibrant, mixed-use, mall redevelopment with a healthy mix of retail, commercial, and diverse residential spaces to meet the needs of the city.  The City and the developer deserve credit for working so hard together toward this vision and, in particular, the effort to re-open St. Paul Street and Pine Street as complete, public streets. While these efforts are exactly what plan BTV envisioned, some of the specific zoning amendments as proposed are not consistent with plan BTV and, therefore, should be reconsidered and reconfigured in order to meet the legal requirement, avoid legal wrangling over potential spot zoning, and facilitate redevelopment.

3 areas of concern:

Proposed zoning amendment to allow post secondary schools and community colleges as a permitted use-  
Under this proposal the entire mall could be turned into a college or university campus, exempt from Inclusionary Zoning requirements and without the conditional use review that is currently mandated.  Nowhere in planBTV does it suggest that we put a college campus downtown!  A college campus does not align with plan BTV's call for mixed use retail, commercial and diverse residential uses at the mall site.  Nor would a college campus address the goal of creating more affordable and moderately priced housing downtown essential for workforce housing, seniors, and others, as prioritized in plan BTV.  It's essential to retain conditional use review of any proposed secondary school/college at this site.

Proposed zoning amendment to raise building height limits from the current 65' by right to 160' (14 stories) by right with no provision for requiring additional public benefits such as affordable or senior housing.  
This proposal represents a dramatic increase in building height and a major change in policy that has little basis in the adopted plan BTV or the draft Form Based Code.  

While Plan BTV wisely calls for "larger residential, mixed-use buildings" at the current one-story mall site as well as strategic infill and liner buildings, the plan does not suggest the need for any increase in our current height limits and says; "While allowing for even taller isn't necessarily the answer, efforts to encourage development that more fully utilizes the permitted development envelope need to be supported".  Plan BTV seems to be responding to public sentiment and cites its public survey that found only a very small percentage of respondents who were dissatisfied with the scale of buildings downtown. Even the plan's graphic images of what a redeveloped mall site could look like show new buildings no taller than 6 to 8 stories in keeping with our current height limits. 

Furthermore, 14-story buildings towering over historic Bank Street, Cherry Street and the new sections of St. Paul and Pine Streets could block sunlight and increase and alter wind currents and downdrafts at these locations, potentially diminishing the positive pedestrian experience that plan BTV envisions.  In addition such heights would seem to be at odds with Section 6 of our current Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance that emphasizes the importance of maintaining neighborhood proportions of scale and mass and sensitive transitions between new buildings and existing neighborhoods.

Under this proposed zoning amendment to allow 14-story buildings by right a developer could put in the bare minimum number of inclusionary zoning units (15-25%) and all of the remaining units (75 to 85%) could be luxury apartments.  This fundamental policy shift would be counter to plan BTV's strong emphasis on creating a variety of housing options:  "more choices, more types, more affordable, more diversity".  Plan BTV calls on us as a city to use "a number of strategies that can and should be employed to encourage the creation of significantly more housing- particularly affordable and affordable market-rate units".  Specifically cited in plan BTV's vision for the mall are "downtown workers, young professionals, and empty nesters" who need affordable and moderately priced housing downtown.  By adopting a massive height increase with no incentives attached we could lose on an opportunity to get the housing variety that our city needs.

Proposed zoning amendments that would allow for surface parking lots and a parking garage to be built to the perimeter of a building at any floor except the first floor.
Surface parking lots, whether on the ground or on the top deck of a parking garage, are completely at odds with 21st century planning and the green roofs and stormwater management called for in plan BTV.  

In regard to parking, plan BTV emphasizes underground or wrapped parking where needed, stating:  "In all cases, any new facilities should be wrapped with mixed-use buildings to screen the parking and activate the street."  Our plan does not say that this only applies at the ground floor level.  Lastly, plan BTV emphasizes the need for the city to "work closely with developers to manage their parking needs" and consider alternatives to building conventional parking garages.  I urge that we delete the amendment allowing for surface parking and make the parking garage section more consistent with plan BTV objectives.

In conclusion:
We as a Planning Commission have been urged to 
adopt, in their entirety, the zoning amendments to enable the mall redevelopment as proposed.  However, we would not be performing our due diligence or meeting our legal obligations if we passed the particular zoning amendments cited above as written.  I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that we need to avoid the potential lengthy legal mess associated with accusations of "spot zoning" by making absolutely sure that any zoning amendments comply with the goals of our publicly supported plan BTV.

Until we go through the public process of changing it, plan BTV is our guide for Burlington's future.  The city supports and wants plan BTV.  Developers want certainty.  We can have both.  

I respectfully request of my fellow planning commissioners that we reshape proposed zoning amendments as needed to keep us on solid legal ground and to better reflect the vision and values of Plan BTV and the citizens of Burlington.

Thank you.

Lee Buffinton

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Conflicts in Planning Land

Commissioners Lee Buffinton and Andy Montroll,  duly diligent
There has been an enormous amount of hard work and great critical thinking happening on the planning commission over the last few weeks, as commissioners struggle to understand the repercussions of the downtown core overlay district zoning change they are charged with evaluating. The City Council has asked the Planning Commission to provide their approval or disapproval of the dramatic zoning change necessary to allow for a height increase, by right, from 65 feet to 160 feet in an area of about 2 square blocks. They are charged with doing this in an extremely short period of time. As one commissioner noted last week, they spend much more time deliberating on much smaller projects. As another commissioner said when she discovered they were expected to have a conclusion by July 6th, "You have got to be kidding!"
 There are many things that make this complicated and even sometimes prohibitively convoluted, but the main question is whether they are being asked to approve a zoning change for this particular project or a general zoning change. Whatever your thoughts about the project are, it is clear that the Planning Commission would not be reviewing this change right now if it were not for Mr. Sinex's Town Center project, and it certainly wouldn't be reviewing it within an irresponsibly small window of 120 days.
     If the change is being made for the project, and if the project is not in accordance with our comprehensive plan, then it is spot zoning, and illegal. David White continues to flit back and forth between discussing the merits of the particular project and those of the abstract zoning change. Sometimes the discussions are about the maximum build-out allowable under the proposed zoning; other times commissioners are told not to worry, because the proposed project doesn't do X or Y. This all comes to a very concrete conflict when the planners discuss what kind of a physical model they want (they want one; and they want it before they make a decision about the project; but they are being pushed to decide without one). In any case, the model, which they will get only after their deadline for making a decision, could be either of the maximum build-out allowed in the zoning change, or of the proposed Sinex project. Or of both.
   While David White is unclear about whether the zoning change is for a particular project or just a general change, he is quite clear that it is in harmony with our comprehensive plan, Plan BTV. Fortunately, members of the planning commission have challenged him on this assertion a number of times, noting that PlanBTV shows an 8 story mall, not a 14-story one. It also states that citizens are comfortable with height as it is and that increased density need not mean increased height.
Commisioners Lee, Baker, and Buffinton

   Another conflict in planning land is about the different benefits and detriments of height versus mass. The conversation is most often carried out as if we had only two choices: a project with two 14 story towers which more than double our current height allowance, or a massive bulky monolith. There are pictures of wedding cakes tiered elegantly, and giant brown blocks that are built out to the maximum borders. Lee Buffinton proposed keeping the building within our current height restrictions AND tiering it with step or set backs. Because both scenarios of the either/or narrative are unacceptable. This excellent and wise suggestion must be repeated often!
    Also controversial in this planning discussion is the question of "by right" allowance of height. While currently a developer must provide 20%  affordable inclusionary units (we thought it was 15...but it turns out to be more in this part of town) with any housing development, if he gets more height he would be asked for 5% more for every extra floor. Now, with this proposed zoning change, a developer can get the height just like that, by right, with no public bonuses. That's what it says: no public bonuses, by right. There is still discussion about returning the streets (which process we pay for with TIF money) and the argument is that this is a public benefit, but the zoning language itself says No public bonuses and By right.  David White argues that if a development is larger a developer must provide more because the percentage of units will be more. This sounds good until you realize that this proposal includes many floors that are not housing (parking garages, office space, retail space).
      While planning commissioners and city councilors are concerned about this by right allowance and about the affordability profile of the project, the Mayor, who graced the meeting for a while, but slipped out when public comment period started), asserted that the city council had already vetted the affordability profile and that they were satisfied that they could not ask for more units. I know this to be incorrect, since at least three city councilors testified at the meeting when the pre-development agreement was signed, saying they had serious concerns about this aspect of the project and would not approve the development if they were not addressed. At the last moment in the meeting, a comment by Councilor Bushor demonstrated that this kind of misrepresentation is not uncommon in this process.
   Another bone of contention with this zoning change, or is it with the specific proposal? is the question of above-ground parking. One of the great selling points of this development and of urban infill altogether is that it will improve the walkability of the city and cut down on automobile use and greenhouse gas emissions. It is supposed to be an antidote to "sprawl" and provide a way that people can work and shop and play (as they say) near where they live. Well, then why the 500 extra parking spaces? And why are they above ground in the proposal despite the fact that city policy is clearly against above-ground parking? Well, to answer the first question: we "need" more parking spaces because the anti-sprawl argument is mostly just a talking point and these people are not serious enough about climate change to even consider a development that would truly decrease car use. When asked last night about whether he could put the parking off-site or eliminate it altogether, Mr. Sinex, who, moments before had been talking about the green nature of his project, said  categorically, No, that would not be possible. My investors would not support that. So much for change and progress and innovation. Business as usual rules again. As to the underground parking question. Sinex claims it would cost too much and take too long. So, do we have to just accept that and accept the extra three stories that putting parking above ground entail? even if it goes against both our height restrictions and our restrictions for parking? Well, David White thinks it will be fine, and showed us lots of nice pictures of parking garages that don't look like parking garages....kind of like those cell phone towers that sort of look like trees. But the planning commissioners are not convinced. They want parking underground, off-site, or, if nothing else is possible, indistinguishable (the fake tree model). But why would nothing else be possible? Some critics of our movement say we are afraid of change. In truth, we want change. Real change. It is projects like this that are stuck in the old ways, ways that are clearly destructive to the environment, to community values, and to our human-scaled environment.  Business as usual is not change.
    There was one more controversial moment at the Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday. Councilor Sharon Bushor was there and during public comment time she lodged a complaint publicly which she had already filed with David White. The packets received by the planning commissioners included several instances of language which suggested that the city councilors "strongly recommended" approval of different aspects of the proposal. Councilor Bushor clearly stated that the councilors did not strongly recommend anything in the proposal. But the City staff did. As is often the case, City Staff was putting words in people's mouths to achieve their own aims (sometimes it is the people who want X, Y, or Z, sometimes it is the businesses, now it is the councilors). But, lo and behold, sometimes those of us who are misrepresented pay attention (thank you, Councilor Bushor, for always paying attention), and we object to being misquoted and used as pawns in a game we never even wanted to play.
   It remains to be seen what the Planning Commission will conclude by their public hearing on July 6th. There is one more work session on Tuesday, the 29th, at the Police Station, with public comment at the end; and then the hearing at Contois on the 6th of July. Will they say No to this zoning change because it contradicts our comprehensive plan and because there is massive public opposition? Will they provide comments and concerns and hope that the Council will revise the ordinance and send it back to them for another vetting, by that time with benefit of a physical model? Will the city council heed the concerns of the commission and revise it and send it back, or will they rush along to approve it without taking care to do their due diligence? Or will the Planning Commission, urged on by David White and the Mayor, just say Yes, despite their considerable concerns? I think it might be up to you, reader, and your level of engagement and input into the next few essential weeks!

Saturday, June 18, 2016


Greetings Concerned Citizens, 

Please come to the Planning Commission's Work Session on the downtown zoning change on Tuesday Night, June 21st, at 6 p.m. (at the Police Station) and be prepared to speak, especially if you have not done so before. Since it is a work session, the public comment time will be shorter than usual, but it will still be significant. You can speak and then go out and get a creamie in the park, or stay and listen to the deliberations of the board on this important topic. 

Some things to note:

1. The proposed change to create a downtown overlay district of two square blocks is not just about allowing increased height (from 65 to 160 feet), but, perhaps more disturbingly, it also allows a developer to get this extra height without providing public benefits in return. While at present a developer must provide 15% affordable housing for a building of 65 feet, he or she would have to provide much more affordable housing, or something else comparable, to achieve the 105 feet now possible. Under this new district zoning, the developer is not required to give anything more than already required at 65 feet. While David White and Joan Shannon argue that getting the streets back constitutes a public benefit, this is subjective and is not written into the law of the change they are about to make, which states explicitly that the height would be allowed "by right" without public bonuses. The streets, if they can be built at all (there is a building in the way of one of them), would benefit the developer's project as well as the citizens and do not, therefore, constitute a public benefit. In any case, there is nothing in the zoning change that would require anything at all.

2. The deliberations on this change continually go back and forth between a discussion of a general change and a change explicitly for this project. If the change is being made explicitly for this project, then it may be considered spot zoning, which is illegal. If it is being made just because, we  have to wonder why all of the specifications under discussion are about the specific project, and citizen concerns about the possibility of building to the maximum build out allowed under the new zoning district regulations are allayed by pointing to the specific project. Also, the model that is promised is to be of the specific project, not the maximum build out. Spot Zoning is also defined by a development being out of character with its surroundings and by being in contradiction to a city's comprehensive plan. David White claims that this development is in character and in compliance, citing a desire for density and infill, ignoring the massive leap from 65 to 160 feet as well as the massive leap in mass.

3. The model! Lee Buffinton, Emily Lee, and Harris Roen all have expressed deep discomfort about making a decision without seeing a physical model. Jane Knodell said that she wouldn't vote to pass the zoning without seeing one (though now she seems to be hedging). But David White tells them (and us) that the model will not be done in time to help the planning commission with their decision, though it might be ready in time for the city council to get a glimpse of it before quickly voting on this important question. Insist on a physical model before deliberations continue!

4. Joan Shannon and some of the planning commissioners have been saying that giving the developer the freedom to build high would be better than just allowing him to build a bulky mass within the current zoning, but Lee Buffinton noted at last week's planning commission meeting that these are not the only two options. The either/or scenario seems like a scare tactic to force us to accept the height (or else it just reveals a terrible lack of imagination or agency on the part of some council and planning board members). In fact, as Ms. Buffinton pointed out, the planning commission may make recommendations and the council and development review board may make requirements that the developer not build a massy bulk. They have the right to withhold permitting based on design principles. Furthermore, while Joan Shannon and others conflate the opening of the streets with the height bonus, in fact there is no reason why the developer could not open up the streets without building to 14 feet, since the streets would be paid for by the TIF, by us, in other words, not by the developer. 

5. All of the planning commissioners have expressed deep discomfort with the rush to give a definitive answer on this huge change. Please support them in saying No to the rush, No to the Zoning Change, No to the massive relinquishment of public and councilor/planning commissioner agency. We should not be held hostage by Sinex, David White, and Mayor Weinberger. And the councilors and planning commissioners have every right in the book to say No to this imposed vision and every responsibility to represent the people in our vision of our city. 

Our Zoning for Our Community!

If you can't go to the meetings, please write your planning commissioners and councilors beforehand!! 

City Councilors: 
Sharon Foley Bushor:             
Tom Ayres:
Sara Giannoni:                      
Adam Roof:
William "Chip" Mason:         
Selene Colburn:
Max Tracy:                                  
Jane Knodell:
Kurt Wright:                               
David Hartnett:
Karen Paul:                                      
Joan Shannon:

 Planning and Zoning Commissioners:

Yves Bradley:             
Bruce Baker:
Lee Buffinton:                               
 Emily Lee:
Andy Montroll:`                                       
Harris Roen:
Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur:

Monday, June 13, 2016


You may have heard that the Mayor is leading a book club meeting at Arts Riot in early July, using Edward Glaeser's book Triumph of the City

Here is a representative quote from the Mayor's chosen book:

“It’s easy to idolize democracy, but effective city governments usually need leaders who govern with a firm hand, unencumbered by checks and balances and free from the need to heed the wishes of every disgruntled citizen.” 

Go ahead, if you have the stomach for it, and get your copy of the book, a propaganda piece for his policies, paid for with tax payer funds, at the library and join in the discussion. If the Mayor will deign to let citizens get a word in edgewise between his firm hands.

Your Voice is Needed at Planning Commission Meeting, June 14th

The Planning Commission will be meeting Tuesday, tomorrow, June 14th, at 6:30 in the Police Station, One North Avenue to discuss their plans to approve a new downtown overlay district that will allow a developer
to build up to 160 feet, by right, in the area of and surrounding the current mall.

And they are fixing to do this without seeing a physical model of what this would look like even though a number of commissioners have admitted to feeling very uncomfortable about doing this without a model.David White and Jane Knodell are assuring us that there will be a model, but only AFTER the zoning change has been made! We must demand that there be a model BEFORE this change is contemplated.

The city staff, led by David White, is pushing the planning commission to rush this major decision, against the will of the people who have made it abundantly clear over years of input and, more recently, in Plan BTV Downtown, that we do not want a height increase of these proportions in the city center. 

Not only would this be a radical change in height allowances, but it would be a radical change in how we negotiate with developers about providing public benefit in exchange for allowances. Under the current zoning, a developer may build up to 65 feet "by right". If he wants to build up to 105 feet he has to give us some public benefit in exchange (how about more than the required 15% affordable housing, for example?!). Now the planning commission and city council are changing the rules radically by allowing a developer to build up to 160 WITHOUT GIVING US ANYTHING MORE THAN HE WOULD FOR 65 feet! 

Further, this change is being made in response to a particular development and does not fit into our comprehensive plan. A change this huge would, under sane, democratic, responsible stewardship, require public input for a very long period, not just 120 days.  It sounds like a classic case of "spot zoning"(see our definition) and is probably actionable. 

If the planning commission and city council do persist in recklessly pushing this zoning through we will fight it and overturn it. But that fight will require that we make it clear now, before the fact, that this is being done against our will. Public comment time is in the beginning of the meeting. Please come and speak, especially if you have not spoken before. Or just come and hold a sign or bear witness. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Thoughts on the Mall Project and Affordable Housing

As most of you know, any new housing development in Burlington is required to include 15 % affordable units (more for on the waterfront). If a developer asks for a height increase or some other variance, we can ask him for more affordable units in exchange. Sometimes, however, as in the infamous Westlake development, a developer gets increases but avoids providing affordable units by simply paying a fee. Other times a developer builds the affordable housing off site, somewhere less desirable, which is also a problem in terms of the fair housing concept, which expects an integration of housing and income types.

In the case of the proposed mall project, Don Sinex is proposing to build the bare minimum of affordable units for a building of only 65 feet. Under our normal requirements we could ask him to build much more than 15% for going up to 105 feet. But the city is fixing to give him 160 feet without even asking him for more than the minimum for a 65 foot building. And all along crowing that they are going to improve affordable housing in the city. This is obviously a really bad deal and a terrible precedent.

On another affordable housing note, we have heard that the Burlington College development may also include some irregular affordable housing deals. It seems that instead of providing a percentage of affordable housing as part of his project, Eric Farrell has sold s piece of his property to Champlain Housing Trust so they can build the affordable housing required by this project. Is this really an appropriate way for a developer to fulfill his affordable housing percentages? He probably gave Champlain Housing Trust a good deal, but he is not taking financial responsibility for building the units as part of his own project.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


If you are concerned about the zoning change that will allow the mall project to go forward, please show up at the planning commission meeting this Thursday, June 9th, at the Police Station. The Burlington Business Association is calling in their troops (many of whom live out of town) to speak in favor of the project. Since the planning commission is only allowing people who have not yet spoken on this topic to speak during public comment time (which will be shorter than usual since this is a work session), IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO GET NEW VOICES AGAINST THE ZONING CHANGE AND THE PROJECT TO SPEAK AT THIS MEETING!
When the usual voices are not allowed to speak, and other people assume that the usual voices will be there to speak, the voices in favor of the project swoop in to fill up the space and the planning commission can be swayed. Please, if you do care about due diligence, democratic process, and preserving our zoning to protect views, quality of life, and a human-scale community, show up early, sign up, and speak!!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sketch Review Meeting on the Burlington College Land Development

Meanwhile, Eric Farrell is going forward, with the administration's blessing, to build at 700 PLUS unit development on one of our last beautiful wild pieces of land, overlooking the waterfront--a wildlife corridor and a traditionally locally-utilized public space. Despite massive public outcry, including concerns about traffic, infrastructure, threats to the health of the lake, and the all-around bad deal brokered by Vermont Land Trust and the city (giving Farrell concessions and benefits, giving the public the questionable gift of  land that couldn't be built on anyway,&...), the city council unanimously pushed through this desecrating deal. Now that Burlington College has folded (a victim of reckless management, conflicts of interest between city government, board members of the college, and the local developer community, as rapacious developers and friends of developers colluded to let the college fail while salivating over the delicious, disabled morsel), Farrell is ready to step in and pick up the last remaining crumbs of real estate. For anyone who has the stomach for it, there are more horrors to come, and perhaps there is still something that can be done to at least ameliorate, if not stop, this project.

There will be a sketch review of Farrell's project by the Design Review Board on Tuesday, June 7th from 5-8 P.M. at Contois.  Will there be anyone there to witness, say a last word in defense of the land, of public process, of the lake? I hope so.