Monday, August 8, 2016

Ordinance Committee Gets Ready to Vote Tomorrow on Zoning Ordinance ZA 16-14

Tonight the Ordinance Committee met to confer once more before their meeting tomorrow on the zoning amendment that would allow the Town Center Mall-Redevelopment Project to proceed along the developer's time line and according to his wishes. Although the Pre-Development Agreement (PDA) stipulated that certain key elements of information be provided to the City Council by August 1st, most of these things are still not forthcoming. No physical model, no market feasibility study, no serious vetting of the developer's credentials, who, as Richard Hillyard noted, is responsible for at least one company which went bankrupt last year.

 Why should the developer keep his promises to the city and provide them with what they want? They lost the leverage they had when they signed the pre-development agreement. Why did they sign it without these basic questions answered? All councilors except Max Tracy recklessly put the cart before the horse. Many of them said at the time that it didn't mean anything. Now some of them are acting like it meant everything and that they can't possibly turn back now that they have all but promised to go along with it. But has the developer kept his promises? Clearly not.So why should we honor our part of the bargain?

What's more, key elements that were promised to us from the beginning in order to sweeten the deal have been eliminated from the plan:

Amazing storm water run-off infrastructure!
LEED certified GOLD standard building!
St. Paul and Pine Streets returned to full streets!

Storm Water? Oh, too bad. Turns out that, according to our storm water expert, Megan Moir, the 100% water treatment for 1 year touted in the PDA is not even possible. The section on storm water runoff has simply been struck from the ordinance!

Greeen Buildings? Oh, too bad. A surety on LEED certified GOLD standard would be too expensive for the developer. Although "staff," represented by Meagan Tuttle since Mr. White is on a long vacation, continued to press the committee to accept the idea that such a surety was too expensive, both Sharon and Max argued for more information. Max noted that the basis of the new method of eliminating bonuses is to establish what we absolutely always require. LEED Gold could be one of those things that we always require. If it costs a developer 10 million dollars to get the surety; that might be fine.  But, it looks like the new method is to require nothing at all that might discourage a developer in any way. No more bonuses for added height or mass; and also no more requirements.

Full Streets? Oh, too bad..(but this is not even something any of them will admit yet!) at least one of the streets promised is too steep to allow for even bikes, let alone cars and buses, to use. Why won't they explain, admit or acknowledge this? Instead, when asked, they now mumble that they are still studying the details. Still studying the details while continuing to sell the project to the public based on very uncertain information!

Another thing about these streets: if there is toxic soil where they are to be built, it will have to be transported to Coventry. The soil under the adjacent new bus terminal was toxic, and the developer is claiming that the soil where we want him to build his parking garage would be toxic (thus increasing his costs). So what about the streets? Would the 22 million in TIF money cover the hauling of toxic soil over and above the cost of building the streets? Or are we setting ourselves up for an even greater expenditure?

If you thought 160 feet was bad, watch out. The document being discussed currently calls for allowance of up to 15 feet more for mechanicals and architectural details. 175 feet or more. Both Max Tracy and Sharon Bushor were, however, clear that they would open this discussion up when the City Council gets a chance to discuss the ordinance in its upcoming work sessions, and that they both agree with many planning commissioners who argued that a maximum height should be set, without exceptions given for further allowances.

And if you think 175 or 160 feet is bad, will you be satisfied with Sharon Bushor's  vision of 130 feet? She said it "would make [her] feel okay". Not me. Why, even 105 feet of this monstrosity of mass and ugliness doesn't make me feel okay. But why go beyond the zoning height of 65 feet (105 with bonuses) at all? Sharon noted that she would share her 130 ft. idea with the rest of the council, adding, "Would I compromise? Absolutely!"  which would leave us where exactly? At 145, at 150 feet? Why? Why not 65 feet?

The most stunning moment of the meeting was in public comment time when Caryn Long read from a resolution drafted in 2008 by  Joan Shannon and Andy Montroll. This resolution was drafted to resist the push by an ad hoc committee of developers to increase the allowable building height  beyond 100 ft.  The resolution, penned by Shannon and Montroll and approved by the council, set the allowable building height at 105 feet, noting that developers were promoting higher buildings in order to increase profit, but that Burlington residents did not favor an increase. Joan, Joan, we hardly recognize you now. What happened in the last 8 years to make you deaf to the voices of Burlington residents who still do not favor such an increase? Andy Montroll has, to his credit, been sensitive to the clamor of citizens in his discussions on the Planning Commission. But the misrepresentations by Zoning staff have made any conscientious attempts at reasonableness by Planning Commission members moot.

The discussion of parking was lengthy, surrounding the question of what leverage could the city have to enforce or encourage a developer to build parking underground instead of above ground? Megan Tuttle misrepresented the positions of the Planning Commission by adding a clause to their document saying that it would be acceptable to have above-ground parking out to the facade of a building if it were above the 2nd floor! What? No. While the ordinance does document that the commission had a strong preference for parking underground, it belies the level of discomfort about other methods of dealing with the parking by making it seem as if the above-ground parking model were acceptable to the commissioners as a second or third best after underground or wrapped parking. In fact, the commissioners were grappling with a legal way to say that they wanted to require underground parking unless it were shown to be unfeasible. A discussion ensued at the ordinance committee meeting about how a city might enforce or encourage a developer to put the parking underground. Just telling a developer that he must put it under ground seemed inconceivable. Why, that might drive a developer away! Egads! Requiring anything is so 2015. In any case, the idea was floated, and supported by Sharon Bushor, of offering incentives in the form of allowing a developer to provide fewer parking spaces if he built them underground, saving space. Max Tracy noted that the recently completed parking study intended to try to better utilize the parking that we already have in lieu of building more parking in the city. In essence: why are we building more parking before we know that we need it?

If you are still with me, I question your sanity. Why is any of this even being discussed? Why does the ordinance committee have one more day to complete its analysis of an ordinance which the Pre-Development Agreement foisted upon the Planning Commission with a 120 day deadline? Why are they looking at a document the Planning Commission never had the time to vet or approve? Why are they looking at this ordinance without benefit of a promised physical model, without answers about the complete streets, the storm water run-off, the market feasibility, the developer's credentials, the cost of underground parking, and so on and so on?

It is all so absurd and, as my colleague Tony Redington said to me at the beginning of the meeting: "spooky". Who in good conscience can support this crazy project or make excuses for this obscene excuse for due diligence and public process?  These last are questions that are unanswerable. But there are questions we can demand answers to.

Please come if you can tomorrow, August 9th, 5:30 at Contois, to the last ordinance committee meeting, and weigh in about this mess. Or write to councilors Bushor, Wright, and Tracy, and give them your feedback.

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