Thursday, July 7, 2016

Just Do It! The Planning Commission Gives the Overlay District Rezoning the Go Ahead

In full keeping with what Barbara McGrew last night called the motto of the Weinberger administration, "Let's get it Done," the Planning Commission sent the ordinance that would allow 14 story buildings by right to any developer in the overly district on to the City Council who will begin deliberations about it at their July 11th meeting. 
                                                Just Do it.
Lacking its conscience, Lee Buffinton, who was forced to recuse herself because her employer Champlain Housing Trust, supports the project, the remaining members present cooperated with the unconscionable and irresponsible push to, in the words of one supporter of the project, the owner of LeZot Cameras, "Get it done any way possible". Before the mad rush to get it done ensued, Emily Lee read a letter drafted by herself and Lee Buffinton (who had not yet recused herself), outlining the reasons why they both felt that the public hearing should be stopped (full text of this public record is below in another post). The letter cited improprieties in the warning process and multiple inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Planning Commissioner positions and clearly stated that the required report on the compliance of the zoning change with our comprehensive plan written by the Director of Planning and Zoning, David White, had never been seen by them, discussed by them, or voted on by them. Further, it did not represent the prevailing position of most members of the commission. The audience broke into applause. We thought, for once, that honesty and integrity would prevail. Not so. Immediately after the applause died down, Emily Lee took back her support of the letter, noting that the City Attorney's explanation had satisfied her as to the legality of the proceedings. Eileen Blackwood, City Attorney, had reported that even though Vermont  State statutes require a Planning Commission to draft and approve such a report, that's not how we usually do it in Burlington. Thus it is fine for the Director of Planning and Zoning to write such a report without the knowledge or agreement of the Commission, in the Commission's name! According to the Vermont Zoning Administrator's handbook, however, this is not at all correct. Here we read: "The board or commission should make its own decision in a deliberative session without the ZA[zoning administrator]present, and to avoid an unhealthy mixing of roles, the ZA should not write the board or commission’s decision".  But Emily Lee was satisfied and Lee Buffinton announced the bombshell that she was required to recuse herself.
Business as usual could now proceed without the pesky obstacle of conscience, due diligence, the law, ethics, consistency, responsibility to the public. 
The public comment period began and ended with strong requests for Yves Bradley, whose employer, Pomerleau Real Estate, publicly supports the project, to recuse himself because of widely perceived conflicts of interest. Bradley refused. In between there were about 50 public comments, about 29 against the zoning change and the associated Town Center Project, and about 21 in favor. As was noted by one speaker opposed to the project, most of the people opposed were local residents with no vested interest, while many of those in favor were people who stood to gain financially by the project, including the developer's own lawyer, contractors, architects, and the ever present head of the Burlington Business Association, Kelly Devine, who lives out of town. A long list of Burlington Businesses opposed to the zoning change was read by Alexander Lavin, who noted that Ron Redmond had included many of these businesses on a list he read at the May 2nd meeting as being in support of the project. In fact, they had agreed to supporting a renovated mall, without having any idea that this would require a zoning change allowing 14 stories by right. Monique Fordham collected these signatures in only 2 days, in between her busy work schedule. Ron Redmond responded to this powerful refutation of his assertion by claiming that most of the businesses on our list were not even on Church Street! Tell that to Crow Bookshop, the Outdoor Gear Exchange, Bigger Boat, Full Tank, Uncommon Grounds, Vermont Violins, Little Citizen, Earth Prime Comics, Downtown Threads, Global Pathways, Hendrix Boutique, Vermont Gemological Laboratory. They might be surprised to learn that they are not on Church Street. In any case, this list includes the following other businesses just off Church Street: Dobra Tea, Pure Pop, Fire and Metal, Old Gold, Muddy Waters, Bento, Stone Soup, Champlain Leather, Revolution Kitchen, Crystal Cottage, New Moon Café, Radio Bean, Duino Duende, Light Club Lamp Shop. In fact, Redmond's math is off . About half of the businesses (if we count Radio Bean-Duino Duende-Light Club as one since owned by the same Lee Anderson) are on Church Street. What the businesses on this list do have in common is that they are local businesses, who care about their community. They may not have the Just Do It ethos of large corporations or chain stores.
Anyway....I'm tired now, so I won't go into detail about the many pro and con arguments given by the very engaged, intense public. Andy Simon, refuting the idea that opponents of the zoning change are against change, affirmed that we do want change, real change, including a change in personnel in City government come March. Others asked for real change in the form of moving toward a car- free city by removing the parking garages that make the building so tall and instituting park and rides. Others asked for slowing down the process and for due diligence and legality. Others asked for real solutions to affordable housing, noting that this project gives away valuable housing space to Champlain College students and provides only 50 or so affordable units which are so small as to be like little cells. I noted that the new zoning law sets a precedent for By Right increase of height, striking our leverage for getting more affordable housing as a public benefit. Others sanely argued that we could have a good project within the current zoning. The mall is now only one story high, so 9 more stories could be built if the developer were to provide public benefit in exchange for any floors above 65 feet. But the people in support of the project spoke quixotically about how this project would bring housing, jobs, vibrancy to the community, without providing evidence or analysis of what kinds of housing, what kinds of jobs. People who did not seem to be much acquainted with the period of Leonardo, Palladio,  or Botticelli spoke of the Sinex development as a "renaissance project". Others pointed to the Masonic Temple as a high building we are all fine with, neglecting as usual, to note that that building's height consists of a tower, or that it is one small tower not a mass of two square blocks of ugly cheap material.
Mayor Weinberger then gave a half hour speech explaining to us ignorant citizens who just didn't yet understand his superior wisdom why this project would save our failing city; once again insisting that building more market rate housing would help the affordability problem but not explaining how; speaking for equity, equality, and against gentrification. As usual he suggested that informed opposition was ignorance, and arrogantly maintained that he knew better than the people of Burlington. Then he proposed that the Planning Commissioners move forward with the approval process by sending the ordinance and the report written by David White, and never approved or seen by them before this official hearing, off to City Council, and that they take some time to revise the list of comments and recommendations for the Council and the accompanying letter that David White had also drafted and which now still says that the Planning Commission strongly approves the amendment, &c, &c. And, guess what? The Planning Commissioners present (Harris Roen and Andy Montroll were MIA) agreed unanimously to do his wise bidding and Just Do It! The Confused public had to ask repeatedly, what did this mean: were they approving the zoning change? Oh no, said Mr. White, the Planning Commission doesn't do that...they just make recommendations. So, we continued to ask: Are you recommending approving this zoning change? Are you ruling that it is in conformity with our Comprehensive Plan? No, not quite that either. Emily Lee kindly tried to explain: they were, in fact, agreeing that the change was in conformity with the basic premises outlined in the report. Which, I take to mean, despite their tergiversation (a word Charlie Messing reminded us of last night) : the Planning Commission recommended the approval of the zoning change, despite serious concerns which they would provide to the council before the Council meeting on Monday(?) and that they basically ruled that the change is in basic compliance with Plan BTV. Confused? Well so are they. But don't think too hard about it. That might get in the way of Getting it Done! 



  1. None of us should be surprised that the Planning Commission took a dive. It's their institutional role to service the developer class. The battleground now shifts to city council where the issues of need and purpose will prevail. In that regard, we must condemn this project as being little more than a scheme by white privileged men to impose their profit needs over our future. This classist and racist project must be defeated. Diversity over luxury. Democratic socialism over neo-liberal capitalism

  2. Oh la la! This is ridiculous political shennanigans and so corrupt!

  3. Oh la la! This is ridiculous political shennanigans and so corrupt!

  4. Oh la la! This is ridiculous political shennanigans and so corrupt!