Nobody was mincing words at a neighborhood meeting last week at the Burlington police station. Lakeview Terrace resident Mannie Lionni told fellow architect Bob Duncan that the latter's design plans to expand a nearby building represented "an old-fashioned, from my point of view, discredited model of development."
Roughly 40 people came out to discuss the Committee on Temporary Shelter's proposal to add 14 apartments and a day station to its administrative offices at the corner of North Avenue and North Street.
It was the fourth meeting the nonprofit has held with neighbors since last November, when COTS first announced its intention to expand at the south end of Lakeview Terrace. And, like past discussions, this one didn't go smoothly.
COTS, which serves the region's homeless population, has for years operated a day station at 179 South Winooski Avenue, where people could make phone calls, use computers and take classes. Flooding in 2012 displaced the program to its current, temporary location on Elmwood Avenue. COTS was just halfway into a 30-year lease, but executive director Rita Markley decided against returning to the old space, because she couldn't get flood insurance for the property. Late last year, she announced plans to build the day station — along with affordable housing units — at COTS HQ.
The project, according to Markley, is critical. "It's the only place where people can get a noontime meal," she said. As for the apartments, "There needs to be a chance for those barely hanging on to have a home, too. That's what this is all about at the most basic level."
The COTS offices occupy a conspicuous turquoise building in the Old North End that formerly housed Burlington College. People still refer to the flat-topped three-story structure as the "Colodny building," for the grocer who sold meats, cigars and confectioneries there in the early 1900s. His nephew, Ed, went on to run US Airways, and later served as interim president of both Fletcher Allen Health Care and the University of Vermont.*
When Colodny the elder started carrying frozen goods, he added a single-floor, cinder-block extension to the back of the building for storage. At a cost of roughly $6 million, COTS' proposed 24,000-square-foot addition would add second and third stories to that and extend it further west almost to Lakeview Terrace, knocking out an existing red cottage that COTS also owns.
The 14 apartments, most of them studios, would likely house elderly tenants and people with disabilities, according to Markley. After nearly a year of planning, she expects to formally submit the proposal to the development review board this week.
The project is moving forward without the blessing of some of the nonprofit's closest neighbors, the most vocal of whom live on Lakeview Terrace, which runs parallel to North Avenue for three blocks north of COTS.
Once soot-choked from the coal-fired Moran Plant, the street underwent a resident-led renaissance when the plant closed down in the late '80s. (It didn't hurt that Chester Liebs, founding director of UVM's Historic Preservation Program, lived there.) Lakeview now lives up to its idyllic name, and residents are unapologetically protective of the neighborhood. Even mundane threats — people not picking up after their dogs, for example — have led to animated and extensive discussions on Front Porch Forum. (Disclosure: I rent an apartment on the street.)
Audible sighs could be heard at last week's meeting — even before project architect Bob Duncan had even begun his presentation.
"What is the purpose, exactly, of the meeting?" asked Lakeview Terrace resident Barbara Zucker. "What effect can we possibly have? We're here to express our concerns, many of us have expressed them before, and we'll continue to express them. What is the point in expressing them tonight?"
The city requires developers to hold a meeting before requesting a building permit, explained Brian Pine of the Community and Economic Development Office. He stated the goal — to hear and hopefully address resident concerns early on — but the crux of Zucker's question went unanswered.
To understand what COTS is up against, and why people like Zucker are exasperated, one need only look north, to the opposite end of Lakeview.
Residents fought all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court to stop the construction of a high-end apartment complex known as the Packard Lofts. They lost, but it took the development company — in which Mayor Miro Weinberger was a partner — nearly a decade to win city approval. Alan Bjerke, whose pristine white clapboard house is now dwarfed by the new structure, still refers to the building derisively as a "cruise ship."
Bjerke attended last week's meeting. "The concern in the neighborhood is we spoke previously about a giant box that had an enormous impact," Bjerke said of the Packard Lofts. "And we're seeing the same thing down here." Lakeview Terrace, as he put it, feels like it's getting "closed in by huge boxes."
This time, instead of facing off against well-heeled developers capitalizing on lake-view property, Bjerke and his neighbors are up against a local nonprofit trying to create desperately needed housing for Burlington's most vulnerable citizens. In a later interview, Pine noted that CEDO supports the project and plans to pitch in $300,000 using local and federal grant money.* According to Markley, COTS considered 20 other locations for the day station but determined that this was the only site that could work. It's within walking distance of downtown, which was considered essential, and COTS already owns the property.
Markley's rapport with some Lakeview Terrace residents has soured because, "frankly, there's an issue with trust," Bjerke said. At the meeting, others murmured in agreement as he addressed the executive director sitting in front of him. "Rita, you told us when ... COTS first came to the neighborhood, and we welcomed you, that you would not bring services here."
An exasperated Markley took the microphone to respond. COTS has provided housing and case-management services on-site since it moved to North Avenue — something Markley said she told neighbors at their original meeting. "I said no day station," she acknowledged, "because at that time, we hadn't had a catastrophic flood that swept from our community a key resource that people don't have right now ... I didn't anticipate that we would have a flood in a building that we couldn't return to."
During his presentation, Duncan, who has a longtime interest in affordable housing projects, calmly listed the concessions COTS has made in an attempt to appease neighbors. The ice cream parlor planned for the ground floor? Nixed because people worried it would create more traffic. The 28,000-square-foot addition? Pared back by 4,000 square feet. Duncan pointed to a sketch of the project, which indicated a shaded island in the parking lot at the top of Depot Street, to show that COTS' plan includes 2,500 square feet of green space.
Not everyone was convinced. "Is that green space? Or is that like a pet lavatory?" responded Lakeview Terrace resident Julie Perlmutter, who lives within view of the project site.
Lionni, who lives farther down the street, was similarly unimpressed, concluding that the proposal "rejects out of hand all the objections and concerns raised by the neighbors at the previous meetings" and "does absolutely nothing to improve the quality of life for the existing residents of the neighborhood."
He then listed his grievances: the loss of the red cottage, which is occupied but not historic; the potential increase in traffic on a street that's become a de-facto playground for neighborhood children; and the unsightliness of the design, which he described as "institutional."
COTS, Lionni said, is squandering an opportunity to turn a "spectacular bluff" — the area at the top of Depot Street where its parking lot is located — into a smaller version of Battery Park.
His vision holds appeal, Duncan and Markley both conceded later. But they contend that it's impractical for several reasons. COTS can't scale back the parking lot because the city mandates that developments provide a minimum number of parking spaces, although that could change. Burlington College still owns some of the parking lot land, and COTS doesn't have the cash to do what Lionni is suggesting. Duncan and Markley also noted other residents have expressed concerns that there won't be enough parking.
In fact, the area adjacent to the parking lot might be in for a more drastic change. After the meeting, several residents said they've heard that Eric Farrell, a developer who's partnering with Burlington College, had plans to build a housing complex there. Farrell did not respond to an interview request.
Markley said she'd heard similar "rumblings" but has not been approached about any such proposal. Several days after the meeting, she was focused on her own. "We've made significant compromises, and this is what baffles me about some of the negative comments made several nights ago," she said last Friday. Overall, though, she's actually been pleasantly surprised by the community's response. "We've had more support than I expected. I had been told this neighborhood doesn't like any kind of development."
Among the supporters is Greg Delanty, an Irish poet and Saint Michael's College professor who owns a house on Lakeview Terrace and rents nearby on North Avenue. "I think it's marvelous!" he declared enthusiastically at last week's meeting. Dressed in a tie, vest and shirt — all in different shades of blue — Delanty said he was mystified by the objections of his neighbors. "It looks fabulous. It looks beautiful!"
Ted Wimpey, director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity's Fair Housing Project, also defended the plan. "This city and the whole state and the whole country, for that matter, need more affordable housing. We need it, and we really need it badly," Wimpey said. "In this town, that means infill."
People bristled at the suggestion that their objections to this particular project meant they weren't supportive of COTS and its mission to house homeless people. "I don't think there is anyone in Burlington — the great liberal white shark of the world — that doesn't support affordable housing," Perlmutter said. "It's not about who we're bringing to the neighborhood; it's about what we're bringing to the neighborhood." Several residents pointed out that they were COTS donors and had volunteered for years.
Barb Prine of Crowley Street said she felt like "I just showed up at a party where, like, the family is fighting but you didn't hear the first half of the argument." She went on to say that Burlington's need for housing should trump other concerns. "At some point, there are some compromises that you make to get something you want more."
Duncan said he's confident the project doesn't violate the city's zoning rules. If the development review board agrees, the goal is to break ground next spring. In the meantime, COTS is likely done compromising. "At this point, I think there is very little we could do that would ever please them," Markley said. "We've been as responsive as we can afford to be."
*Correction 10/22/14: The print version of this article misidentified Ed Colodny's relationship to the grocer who ran a shop in the Colodny building. Ed is his nephew. Also updated to note that CEDO plans to contribute $300,000 in the form of federal and local grants, not directly from CEDO's budget.