Sunday, August 7, 2016

Town Center Myths Busted by Coalition for a Livable City Team of Critical Thinkers

This list of MYTHS: BUSTED! was created by a team of determined and diligent citizens — The Coalition for a Livable City. Through hours of research, discussion, emails and attending countless city meetings, we have done our best to dispel misinformation and speak the truth.

MYTH: PlanBTV stated the need for mall redevelopment, so the Sinex plan is good, yes?

BUSTED! Mall redevelopment as a general theme IS supported in PlanBTV, but that is where the connection ends. The Sinex project does not include moderately-priced housing, senior housing, public parks, green space, parking below ground, true street connectivity or livability in its 14-story three-towered mega-block. Very few of the guidelines set forth by PlanBTV for the mall redevelopment are actualized in the current proposal. A mall redevelopment is a good thing, but the current proposal is flawed in many ways.

MYTH: St. Paul and Pine Streets will be reconnected at street level for vehicular traffic, pedestrians and bicycles. These street “reconnections” will look and function as city streets

BUSTED! With this Mall it will take another half century or so before the City gets is original flat streets again. Pine Street connects through the existing Bank Street parking entrance and tunnel down under the office building, then up a 9% grade through a new opening at the corner of the existing parking garage nearest Pine Street onto Cherry Street—not usable by bicycles and pedestrians because of grades. The tunnel prevents use by City buses or trucks. For pedestrians, an always open arcade or atrium through the current corridor will likely be shared with bicyclists. But the St. Paul St. connection requires a 12% grade rising 15 feet up from Bank Street to the Mall entrance, then a 7 foot drop, just under 5% grade maximum for disability access from Mall entrance to Cherry Street. This “hump” prevents a pedestrian seeing through between Cherry and Bank Streets. The 12% grade from Bank St. to Mall entrance makes it inaccessible to persons with a handicap and too steep for cyclists.

MYTH: The public’s consideration of how to redevelop the Burlington Town Center has been an inclusive 2-year public process

BUSTED! The public process began in January 2015 (18 months ago), but then almost an entire year went by without effective public engagement.) At the next major public meeting (January 2016), the project had changed significantly from what was presented 12 months earlier. And again, over the past 6 months, the latest version of the Burlington Town Center project is very different from the two versions presented in January 2015 and January 2016. In January 2015, Public input resulted in a preliminary sketch requiring no zoning changes. Student housing and above-ground parking were only introduced in 2016.

MYTH: To create density we need to build “up”

BUSTED! Density can be better achieved without high-rises. One block of an older neighborhood may contain many small businesses, studios, shops, restaurants, and apartments with more activity throughout the day and night than one block of a tall office style building with apartments above. Urban innovation and start-ups tend NOT to occur in tall building canyons but in mid-rise neighborhoods that spur interaction. High-rises are like vertical suburbs, sterile, isolating and unlivable. After extensive study of how humans behave in different kinds of environments, the great Danish architect and walkability guru, Jan Gehl, concluded that the most comfortable building height for urban pedestrians is 3 to 6 stories. In their passion for the highest possible densities as an antidote to low-density sprawl, too many urbanist advocates overlook the considerable benefits of still-relatively-high city density at a human scale. Paris, with buildings under 100 feet, is feet is as dense in some parts as Singapore with buildings 50+ stories high.

MYTH: Vertical growth helps economic diversity and vitality

BUSTED! European cities, for the most part, have maintained a human scale continuous urban fabric of 6-8 stories with a very fine textured street grid, and mix of uses. These planning principles reflect a different value system. Unlike High-rise construction which provides big returns to investors and developers, small footprint shops and apartments in a fine textured urban fabric yield smaller profits, spread out among many individuals and businesses in the community. Over centuries, this human scale urban fabric has proved to be adaptable to changing political and economic times, making the community resilient, and durable. The City of Paris, with buildings no taller than 100', supports continuous retail along the street, making every neighborhood walkable.

 MYTH: Tall buildings are good for the environment and reduce energy and carbon-dioxide impacts

BUSTED! High-rise buildings are not the most ecologically sustainable form of construction. They are subject to the effects of too much sun and too much wind. Steel and concrete construction produces a lot of greenhouse gases. High-rise seldom meets the high sustainability goals its proponents claim. Energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are driven by many consumption and lifestyle choices (food, travel, adventure sports, 2nd homes, etc.) in addition to housing and driving. Additionally, concurrent programs, such as increasing downtown parking, building roads, and expanding air service, work to increase emissions. Finally, tech-fixes almost always produce CO2 during the building phase, saving CO2 later. This applies to new buildings, and to solar panels! What actually occurs over time can be modeled and forecasted, but the details are critical.

MYTH: Tall buildings create livable cities

BUSTED! The impact of different forms of housing on social and mental health shows that high-rise living has numerous negative health consequences, especially for children, stay-at-home mothers, and elders. High-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people, and they are not optimal for children—social relations are more impersonal and helping behavior is less than in other housing forms and crime and fear of crime are greater. Based on the research relating to housing and housing and mental health, Gary Evans, professor of environmental and developmental psychology at Cornell University, observed, “people living in high-rises seem to have more mental health problems than those living in low-rises or houses…..Adverse impacts of high-rise dwellings may be due to social isolation.” As for affordability, the higher a building rises, the more expensive the construction. The higher cost to build taller buildings means they tend to be luxury units, often for out-of-town investors. Tall buildings inflate the price of adjacent land, thus making the protection of historic buildings and affordable housing less achievable. In this way, they increase inequality. As Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and French economist Thomas Piketty have documented, trickle-down economics definitely do not work.

MYTH: The city must build more housing units to relieve rental scarcity and a housing “crisis” that is indicated by a vacancy rate of about 1%

BUSTED! Since the 2010 Census, the number of Burlington apartment rental units has increased by 14% (up from 10,000 units in 2010). Since 2014, 1,400 apartment units have been built or are under construction, or nearing construction. Recently, two private surveys show a 2.5% rental vacancy and a “healthy” 3% rental housing vacancy rate likely by year end. Evidence: A July “snapshot” of apartments for rent in Burlington found 129 units available. Also, landlords in the City say it now takes longer to rent units, more are available, and there is more price competition on rents charged.

MYTH: The developer has no choice but to build parking above ground

BUSTED! 3 and ½ stories of Sinex’s proposed 14+ story building are made up of above-ground parking garages. Sinex claims that he cannot put the parking underground because of prohibitive costs and time and that he cannot eliminate it or locate it off-site because potential renters will require parking a stone’s throw away from their spaces. We have only his own word for the prohibitive cost of putting the parking underground. Furthermore the Sinex towers are right next to a public transportation hub, and two lower-level parking garages that could conceivably be raised a few stories each. A truly green development would take advantage of the public transportation hub and the building’s central location and set a precedent for decreasing car traffic within the city center. This could be a great opportunity to establish a drop-off point connected to a park & ride facility outside of the city center. It seems obvious that the three floors of parking justify the height increase, enabling the possibility of building luxury units on the 12-14th floors.

MYTH: The project’s details conform to PlanBTV and are a result of public input meetings

BUSTED! PlanBTV explicitly states that in order to increase density in the downtown core we must build within the permitted development envelope, i.e, within current zoning (allowing up to 65 ft, or 105 ft in exchange for public benefits). A projected image of a new mall shows a building approximately 6 to 8 stories (not 14), and we read that increased density need not mean increased height. PlanBTV states that parking should be underground or wrapped, not above ground or visible. PlanBTV indicates that we need housing for families and mid-low-income residents. The proposed development offers housing for students, high end single units, and only about 55 single affordable units. The change in process for allowing height increases eliminates the leverage for acquiring more affordable housing, effectively blocking the fulfilment of the city’s goal of providing more, not less, affordable housing.

MYTH: The zoning change required for the proposed plan is not illegal spot zoning

BUSTED! Spot zoning is defined as the creation of a special zoning area that is not in conformity with a city’s comprehensive plan, is out of character, constitutes a major change of use for an area, and is created for just one development instead of with a long-term vision of the future of the city. The proposed zoning change is not in conformity with PlanBTV on a number of counts (height increase, above-ground parking, wrong kind of housing, etc.), includes a change of use to allow student housing and university space, is out of character with the surroundings, and is obviously being created explicitly for the benefit if one development. Surrounding land owners have already challenged the city regarding spot zoning, demanding that they too be allowed to increase the height and mass of their holdings.

MYTH: All of the Planning Commissioners support the proposed zoning amendment

BUSTED! In fact, most Planning Commissioners repeatedly said that the timeline allowed for the vetting and approval of this major zoning change was much too fast, noting that other much smaller projects had required much longer time. Commissioners registered multiple reservations about the compliance of the zoning change with PlanBTV, about public opposition to the project, about the possibility of spot zoning, about above-ground parking, a change of use to allow university space, and more. Planning Commissioners agreed that they were not at all ready to approve the zoning amendment, but agreed to pass along their comments—including multiple reservations—to the City Council. This “passing along” has been misrepresented as an approval by the Planning Commission.

MYTH: There's very little development in Burlington because permit requirements are unreasonable — zoning and regulation processes are broken and need radical changing

BUSTED! Actually, 1400 new units are either under construction or recently built in Burlington over the last year. We have already fulfilled our proposed quota of increased housing for the next few years without radically changing the zoning or process of development approvals. While the head of Planning and Zoning tells us that the practice of requiring more Inclusionary Zoning (affordable housing) in exchange for increased height and other waivers does not work, the real reason for this malfunction may be that the city routinely lets developers opt out of providing inclusionary units in exchange for a fine. This fine is only about 3% of the selling price of a condo. The developer will be tempted by the opportunity for larger profits by not building the affordable units, paying the city fine, and selling the 55 units that were supposed to be affordable as high priced condos. Example: Westlake, the development project on Battery Street, paid the city fine ($100,000/unit, 4 units) instead of providing the required inclusionary units.

MYTH: PlanBTV and public input on the mall expressed interest in vertical growth

BUSTED! While general concepts of increased density, infill and the zoning changes needed to facilitate them, are supported in PlanBTV—the increased HEIGHT of buildings is not, nor is the specific height proposed. Quite the contrary. PlanBTV focuses on “human scale,” lake and mountain views, a majority satisfaction with building heights as they ARE, and the idea that “taller” is not necessarily the answer. To say PlanBTV supports 160 feet “by right” is completely untrue. Public input meetings on the mall design indicate that despite the fact that “staff” strongly favored a height increase, citizens were concerned about increasing height (even when 105 ft was the discussed maximum).

MYTH: There is a model of the project at the Fletcher Free Library

BUSTED! While presumably ordered over 4 months ago, there is still no physical model of the project. Some City Councilors and Planning Commissioners have said they will not vote on the zoning ordinance or the development agreement without seeing a model. P and Z continues to stall— currently the model is delayed for “missing data”. Meanwhile we wait patiently. As one wise man said, if the model helped to sell this project, we would have seen it months ago. Hmmm.

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