BURLINGTON — On the hot Sunday afternoon of August 4, 1929, throngs of people gathered at the corner of Main and St. Paul streets in Burlington for an auspicious event marking the end of an era. In a spectacle that must have felt like part Fourth of July parade and part public execution, people cheered as the Queen City's last remaining trolley car was ceremonially burned. A black-and-white postcard commemorating this historic occurrence can be seen at the Fleming Museum. Burlington's automobile age had officially arrived, in a haze of choking black smoke.
It's easy to judge an earlier generation for its inability to foresee the approach of Peak Oil or the mass-transit needs of the 21st century. Meanwhile, though, we've got to make our own decisions about whether to purge or revamp relics of another era. As the trolley car went in 1929, so may go one of the last vestiges of Burlington's industrial waterfront, the Moran Plant.
Before Mayor Bob Kiss even had a chance to market his "vision" for rehabbing the colossal brick edifice, a campaign to demolish it got rolling. A citizens' group called Waterfront Watchdogs has launched a petition drive to put a measure on the March 2008 ballot. The nonbinding referendum would call for razing the old coal-fired plant and exploring other ways to use its 2.7 acres. According to one of its organizers, the referendum is already gaining considerable voter support.
Just weeks ago, Kiss unveiled his plan for renovating the Moran Plant into a year-round, mixed-use public facility. He proposed creating a "North Lawn" that would be the site of a large outdoor skating rink in the winter and a children's water play area in the summer. The Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center would remain on the property, but its boats would be stored in the building's basement, with easy access to a dock and/or boat launch.
Inside the plant, the ground floor would house the sailing center's offices and classrooms. A large, multipurpose "atrium" on the main level would be used for public and private events. Above it, some 40 feet off the ground, a "green" roof and public observation deck would offer views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.
Under the mayor's proposal, part of the building's interior might be converted into an indoor climbing and/or ice-climbing wall. This plan also recommends building a family-style restaurant on the lakeside roof, which would help defray the cost of the building's operations and maintenance.
The mayor's plan has already garnered support from some in Burlington's business community, who are eager to see the long-vacant structure put to good use and turned into a year-round waterfront attraction.
"We were very excited that the mayor came out with this positive proposal," says Nancy Wood, executive director of the Burlington Business Association (BBA). "We've offered to be helpful in whatever way we could."
Last fall, the BBA brainstormed its own goals for the site, Wood says, which are "very much in line" with what Kiss has proposed. The BBA hasn't taken a stand yet on whether the building should be demolished, she says, because people want to see how the site would be used before they decide. Such caution is understandable. In 2005, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal by then-Mayor Peter Clavelle to lease the building to the Greater Burlington YMCA.
The BBA sees potential for year-round use of the Moran site that would remain consistent with Vermont's public trust doctrine, which governs how public land is used. Specifically, the organization recommends that the site be "waterfront oriented" with "public-support facilities" for outdoor recreation, such as bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities for boaters, a gathering space for bikers and fishers, summer and winter concession stands, and a continued presence for the community sailing center. The BBA also wants the site to be a revenue generator for the city.
But such uses are actually inconsistent with the public trust doctrine, argues Loyal Ploof, a former mayoral candidate and activist with Waterfront Watchdogs, which launched the petition drive in April. Ploof says Kiss' plan is "out of line" with what Burlington voters want. He points to a ballot survey from March 2006, in which more than half of voters expressed a desire to see the Moran Plant torn down, and a full 86 percent indicated they'd prefer to see it replaced with a waterfront park. Only one in three voters wanted to see the empty building refurbished.
In Ploof's opinion, there are still too many unanswered questions about the mayor's proposal. Among them: What will the mayor's plan cost? How would the city manage the additional flow of traffic to the site? What would it cost to clean it up?
According to Ploof, the Waterfront Watchdogs have already collected 300 of the 1300 signatures they need by next January to get their measure on the ballot. "You should have seen my phones light up once Kiss' development plan was announced," he says. "I must've had 15 calls saying, 'We can't allow this to happen.'"
But not everyone thinks Burlington should rush to judgment on the Moran Plant. Former architect and 05401 'zine publisher Louis Mannie Lionni suggests that the brick structure should be preserved, even if, like the North 40, it's left to later generations who will determine its ultimate use.
This "large, powerful, muscular, rough, enduring" structure, Lionni writes in the February 2006 issue of 05401, reflects more than just Burlington's industrial past. It contains the history of the Italian-American bricklayers who built it, and whose own homes fell victim to urban renewal a decade later. And, Lionni adds, the building contains an enormous amount of "embedded energy" that architects, designers and engineers can tap into for future use. We shouldn't be debating its continued existence, he suggests, but discussing how to get it listed on the historic register.
"The Moran Plant is a terrific building. It's going to last 500 years if it's maintained," Lionni tells Seven Days. "To me, it's like putting money in a safety deposit vault. You clean it up, you maintain it, and maybe 50 or 100 years from now, some use will be found for it."