A group of Burlington College students met last week to brainstorm ways to keep their lakefront campus from being transformed into what would be one of the largest housing developments in Queen City history. Any day now, interim college president Mike Smith intends to sign an agreement to sell 25 acres to developer Eric Farrell. Once that happens, the clock starts ticking on the only alternative Smith said he'll entertain: The college will sell the coveted parcel to preservationists if they can beat Farrell's $7 million offer — within 60 days.
Motivating the fast-moving deal: The small, debt-laden college, which acquired the campus four years ago, can't pay its bills.
Smith said the sale would buy the school "maybe a year."
But is it the best solution for the city?
"Look, my job is to save a college, and that's what I'm trying to do," said Smith.
The land was farmed for much of the 19th century, and as the city grew up around it the property has, improbably, remained pastoral. Behind the school, a rolling meadow descends to a wooded bluff overlooking Lake Champlain. Paths wind through a forest of oak, red maple and white pine at the southern edge of the property, by the railroad tunnel under North Avenue; the northern boundary abuts Lakeview Cemetery.
The Roman Catholic Diocese bought the property from former Burlington Free Press publisher Henry B. Stacy in the 1870s and constructed the imposing Victorian brick building on North Avenue where Burlington College is now. The same structure housed orphans for nearly a century.
In 1945, the diocese bought more land, including an adjacent cottage, and converted it into the Don Bosco School for delinquent boys. After the orphanage and school closed, the diocese established its headquarters there. Decades after that, dozens of former residents came forward, alleging that nuns, priests and other orphanage staff had physically or sexually abused them.
Facing $30 million in legal settlements, the diocese announced plans to sell its building and grounds, and interested local developers started lining up.
An unlikely buyer beat them to it: Burlington College, under the leadership of then-president Jane Sanders, took on $10 million in debt to acquire the 32-acre parcel in 2010. Erik Hoekstra of Redstone Commercial Group, who had been among the interested developers, estimated the property was worth roughly $6 million at the time.
"When I heard that Burlington College was buying it for a number way north of that, I was baffled," Hoekstra recalled during a recent interview in his College Street office.
For years, Burlington residents have roamed the property as if it was public. Trails provide a direct route from North Avenue — through woods that accommodate scattered homeless encampments — to the bike path and lake below. Somali Bantu refugees started a community garden behind the cottage. "A lot of people feel like it's part of the park landscape in Burlington," Hoekstra said, "even though it's not."
Now Burlington College is confronting a financial predicament similar to what the diocese faced several years ago.
During two interviews, Smith insisted that the college has no choice but to sell. Further, its finances are so dire that it has to act fast. "I am worried daily whether we are going to have enough cash flow to get to this point," Smith said.
The college, which runs on a $5 million budget, is $11.4 million in debt. It's also maxed out all of its borrowing capacity and racked up $300,000 in unpaid bills. To survive, Smith said it needs an additional 40 students — on top of the 220 currently enrolled — next fall.
When Smith made the decision to sell, he went straight to Farrell, who had planned to partner with the previous president, Christine Plunkett, to build dorms and housing on some of the property. Plunkett resigned under duress at the end of August, and Smith discarded her development plan when he took over, deeming it too risky because the college would have received just $250,000 up front.
Smith said he stuck with Farrell, accepting his $7 million offer without reaching out to other potential buyers for two reasons: The college couldn't afford to delay, and it had already made a commitment — albeit an unsigned one — to work with Farrell.
Smith described the deal as a $7 million purchase in which Farrell will give the college $3.5 million in cash and take over the $3.5 million debt it still owes to the diocese. The price includes a house and land at the southern end of Lakeview Terrace, which are mortgaged to People's United Bank and the diocese.
A working document obtained by Seven Days appears to outline the proposed transaction between the diocese and Farrell. In it, the developer is proposing the diocese forgive $2 million of Burlington College's debt, and convert the $1.5 million balance to an ownership stake in the project. The diocese did not respond to an interview request, and Farrell declined to speak to Seven Days.
Smith said he'd never seen the document before and pointed out that Farrell is free to negotiate with the diocese.
The interim president has studied plans for the new development, however, and shared Farrell's rough sketch for the property. It consists of 21 houses, 75 units of senior housing, 60 units of affordable apartments and a three-story building with an unspecified purpose. An additional 300 units of market-rate housing could be either apartments or condos. The college would retain seven acres, including a football field-size green space, and the public would continue to have trail access to the lake.
Speaking for the college, Smith said, "There's no better deal than the deal I got." He and the school's interim financial adviser, David Coates, made the same point at least half a dozen times during a 45-minute interview.
Hoekstra agreed, pointing out that Farrell has to purchase the land before knowing whether the city will grant the zoning permits he needs. "I think they'd be hard-pressed to find someone else that would be willing to do that," he said.
Is preservation even a possibility, given the price and tight time frame?
"The price tag is way beyond the realm of what most conservation groups in the state can really tackle," according to Jon Binhammer, protection director for the Vermont chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Even if it could drum up $7 million, Binhammer explained, the Nature Conservancy focuses on protecting important wildlife corridors and habitats — given its urban location, the Burlington College property likely wouldn't fit the bill.
Others are more optimistic. "I don't say this lightly, but with a lot of intention, an expensive piece of property targeted by the community for conservation could be successfully preserved," said Vermont Land Trust president Gil Livingston.
But the city would have to step up first, conservation leaders agreed.
"Citizens in Burlington and leadership in Burlington have to decide that it's important, and then we could have a conversation about next steps," Livingston said.
Mayor Miro Weinberger isn't saying much. He declined to comment beyond a statement issued shortly after Smith's announcement about the sale. Farrell's plan holds undeniable appeal for a city plagued with a housing shortage, and the developer has won praise for past projects, in particular for his collaborations with affordable housing organizations. Several people interviewed for this story pointed out that the city already has a lot of open space.
Weinberger said he was pleased the college was addressing its financial challenges, and noted the city has long wanted an east-west bike path connection through the property. "We will continue to be engaged in the development and conservation discussions about the land in the months and years ahead," he said.
In addition to supplying leadership, the city would likely need to contribute cash. But in March, Weinberger successfully convinced voters to borrow $9.6 million to fund waterfront redevelopment projects. It's unlikely that the mayor, who frequently touts his fiscal prudence, would expend political capital asking for another $7 million.
Weinberger's opinion isn't the only one that matters. The city has a conservation board made up of nine citizens, and it keeps a conservation fund — currently stocked with $1.1 million — to purchase and protect land within city limits Together, the conservation board and the parks commission recommend acquisitions to the city council and the mayor.
But the conservation board doesn't plan to intervene with the Burlington College property yet. Chair Matt Moore said the board is "very interested" in preserving a public trail, native forestland and the waterfront area informally known as Texaco Beach, but it is waiting for Farrell to buy the property before starting that conversation. "That's not really the conservation board's purview to be that far out in front," he explained.
Any other potential bidders?
"We would follow the city's lead," said Rodger Krussman, the Vermont and New Hampshire director for the Trust for Public Land, which helps municipalities arrange financing for land purchases.
"It's really not within our main mission, but at the same time, if others were interested and the city was interested, we would happily try to be helpful, but we are not going to take a leadership role," said Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
The Conservation Fund, another national organization with a Vermont chapter, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Lake Champlain Land Trust. Groups like these typically turn to the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, which gives roughly $1 million to nonagricultural projects each year. But the annual appropriation for that fund is already spoken for, according to communications director Pam Boyd.
Even if a group could round up the cash from individual donors or federal grants, Livingston pointed out that they might be loath to spend a large amount of money on a relatively small amount of land. The Vermont Land Trust recently spent $5 million to conserve forestland in Worcester and Elmore — but that bought the organization 6,000 acres.
Conservationists' best bet may be deep-pocketed individuals. "I'd be surprised, but I wouldn't be totally shocked, if people came out the woodwork and made something like that happen," said Hoekstra, who supports development on the land as long as some space is left open. "If a conservation group spearheaded an effort and rounded up a handful of high-net-worth individuals that were into conservation, it's not inconceivable."
No conservationists, city officials or millionaires attended the meeting last week in the Burlington College library, where a first-year student offered, "My therapist is supportive of our idea ... There are people out there who really want to keep this, and I think we just need to start a conversation."
Someone else suggested drawing attention to the cause with an "Occupy Burlington College" campout on the school's lawn.
"I think it is tragic and terrible," said Molly Skerry, a senior who helped organize the student protest that led Plunkett to resign. In this case, she's less confident students will hold sway.
Sandy Baird, the school's longest-serving professor, has a history of opposing waterfront development projects. "I have always preferred green space," she said, "but I'm also an advocate for the school, and I really want us to survive."
Ned McEleney, a senior adamantly opposed to the development proposal, pointed out that even $7 million won't solve the school's problems: "We'll still be $4 million in debt." Referring to the board of trustees and the school's interim leaders, he said, "They do not have the best interest of the school in mind ... We're like collateral damage for their real estate plan."