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Building a Better Burlington 

Ways to help the Queen City reign supreme

Published March 4, 2009 at 6:54 a.m.

Burlington needs to get over itself. We’ve all heard ad nauseam about the many kudos the place has garnered over the years — 75 at last count, according to the city’s official “accolades” website. If you trust the national magazines, Burlington ranks among America’s “greenest cities” (Organic Gardening), “top walking cities” (Prevention Magazine), “top 25 cities for the arts” (American Style), and “top 10 places to retire young” (Money), among other firsts.

Still, such ego boosters should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, is it really that impressive to be named the “third funkiest city in the world” by Highlife, the British Airways in-flight magazine? The closest most of its readers get to Burlington are flyovers at 35,000 feet.

Likewise, in 2005 author Gregory Kompes named Burlington one of the “50 fabulous gay-friendly places to live.” Fabulous? Sounds like someone was suckered by our nickname. The Queen City had only one gay bar at the time; it closed the following year.

Bluntly put, Burlington can’t afford to rest on its laurels anymore. With the national economy circling the drain, and state and local tax revenues dropping like a sack of doorknobs, the next mayor — still undetermined at press time — will need to focus on attracting new businesses and jobs to town. Because, as Burlington goes, so goes Vermont.

Accordingly, Seven Days recently asked readers to weigh in on the questions: “What does the Queen City need? Are there goods and services you love but can’t find here? Are there businesses, amenities, physical improvements, social movements, projects and/or new infrastructure that would make Burlington a world-class city?”

Though we encouraged readers to dream big and not let their creativity be constrained by cost, some of the answers we received were familiar and, frankly, boring. For samplers: “Build the Southern Connector,” “provide more parking garages,” “add trash cans on the bike path” and “fix the damn potholes!”

People, people! Whatever happened to the visionaries of yesteryear, when Vermonters dreamed of moving sidewalks à la “The Jetsons,” a gondola from the University of Vermont to the waterfront, and a weatherproof dome over the entire city? (Oh, wait — that was Winooski.)

Several readers expressed their yen for hard-to-find eats, such as “authentic Mexican food,” “African cuisine,” “cheap seafood” and a “rooftop pub/steakhouse on Church Street.” Others pined for national chain stores, including Target, IKEA and Trader Joe’s. A couple of readers requested a “24-hour diner,” an idea that’s already been tried but tanked, in part due to 3 a.m. food fights among drunken rowdies.

Other respondents suggested larger infrastructure improvements: a convention center, amphitheater, IMAX theater and indoor arena for concerts and sporting events. Still others urged speedier progress on the Moran Plant redevelopment. One peace-minded reader suggested erecting statues in city parks that commemorate great Vermont women instead of soldiers, guns and wars. “Let’s honor those who sacrifice to give LIFE for a change,” she wrote.

Actually, several readers offered ideas backed by a social mission: solar panels and windmills on every rooftop, edible gardens in city parks and greenbelts, more pick-up games for athletes, and better mental-health services for kids making the transition to adulthood. A few ideas were quaint (“free chocolate chip cookies for everyone!”), while others were quixotic (“Lock the students in their dorms”).

The most common theme by far, though, was transportation. Perhaps it’s just that time of year, but Burlingtonians yearn for easier — and greener — ways of getting around, whether by shared cars, communal bicycles, express trains to Montpelier/Boston/New York City, or a funicular to Lake Champlain. (The last idea has been studied and may even qualify for federal stimulus funds.)

Space precludes an exhaustive exploration of each idea. But what follows are seven proposals we think have merit. Granted, not all are “shovel-ready,” or even feasible in today’s economic climate. But, as in our seasonal cycle, sunnier days could be just around the corner. It doesn’t hurt to plan ahead.


A world-class marina on the waterfront

During the mayoral debates, independent candidate Dan Smith noted that Burlington is one of the only waterfront cities of its size without a world-class boat marina. John Freeman, owner of the Shelburne-based marine shop Small Boat Exchange, thinks filling that gap is an excellent idea.

“We’re missing the boat, literally,” says Freeman, who’s also president of the Vermont Boat and Marine Association. As he points out, hundreds, if not thousands, of watercraft from up and down the East Coast traverse Lake Champlain between May and October. Most of those vessels don’t stop in Burlington for one simple reason: There aren’t enough docks or mooring spots to tie up, and even fewer marine services to accommodate their needs.

To boaters, Burlington is like a town along an Interstate without an exit ramp. Sailors who want to stop and stock up on supplies have limited options. Those who can secure a mooring must walk a considerable distance to City Market, the nearest supermarket (though Burlington Bay carries some basics). As Freeman points out, for people who’ve been living on a boat for several months, that’s a long haul on a 90-degree July day.

“The Canadians [on boats] all go across the lake to New York because there are better services there,” he adds. “We have so much more to offer than New York does, but we don’t have the infrastructure, marina-wise, to attract boaters here.”

Even a modest marina, comparable to the one at the Naked Turtle in Plattsburgh, would offer an easy-access fuel dock to handle several craft simultaneously, a marine supply shop, a grocery store, more showers and bathrooms, boat slips for transient traffic and a water shuttle to move people to and from larger vessels.

Although Freeman isn’t knocking the job the city has done in managing its boathouse, he suggests inviting a “private concern” to explore the idea further, given the significant up-front investment required. While some Burlingtonians may bristle at the notion of another private interest operating on the waterfront, Freeman suggests a world-class marina wouldn’t necessarily limit public access, if it were done right.

Needless to say, the long-term payoff in tourist traffic and local tax revenues could be considerable. As local businessman Yves Bradley notes, “They’re coming uptown with just an American Express card and the clothes on their back. It’s a no-brainer.”

— Ken Picard

A gardeners’ shuttle to the Ethan Allen Homestead

Burlington is more fortunate than most urban areas its size — it has the Intervale and the Ethan Allen Homestead right in its own backyard. This vast expanse of fertile floodplain is often cited as one reason Burlington is decades ahead of other cities when it comes to local food security. Small wonder that scores of community gardens have thrived in recent years.

Still, many city residents who could benefit the most from community gardening — at-risk youth, low- and moderate-income families and newly arrived immigrants — find it difficult to get to and from the community garden plots at the Ethan Allen Homestead.

Jim Flint is executive director of Friends of Burlington Gardens and the Vermont Community Gardening Network. Last year, during a meeting on the homestead’s future, Flint suggested a novel idea: What if the city offered tram service to and from the homestead, using small, battery-powered carts that ran up and down the bike path along the Burlington Beltline?

“For a lot of young families in the Old and New North End, pushing a stroller out to the homestead is a long haul,” Flint says. “This could really open up a beautiful area for families for recreation and a connection to the land.”

Flint envisions an electric tram that could carry 10 to 15 people at a time between the Old North End and the homestead. Ideally, it would have storage spaces for stowing gardening supplies, freshly picked produce or picnic lunches.

Since Flint broached the idea a year ago, it’s captured the imagination of Jennifer Ely, director of the Winooski Valley Park District, which manages the homestead property. Just last week, Ely told Flint that a small grant may be available for exploring the idea further.

Ely admits she’s unsure whether the city would allow motorized traffic on the bike path, even a small electric tram. Nevertheless, she’s intrigued by the recreational possibilities: Tourists downtown could ride out to the homestead for a small fee; canoeists and kayakers could put in along the banks of the Winooski and get picked up by another tram at the mouth of the river several hours later.

Neither Flint nor Ely has proposed a name for the shuttle. Here’s an idea: The Ethan Allen Tram, or “EAT” for short.

— Ken Picard

Citywide Wi-Fi service

Economic development experts say the Digital Age is all about connectivity. In the coming years, the cities that grow the fastest and attract the new clean-technology industries — and the hip, young, creative professionals that come with them — will be those that invest in their digital infrastructures.

Several readers suggested Burlington should aim for citywide Wi-Fi — that is, it should offer the ability to connect wirelessly to the Internet anywhere within city limits, at any time. But is such ubiquitous online access feasible, or even desirable?

Greg Epler Wood is the owner of MediaVox, a local media consulting firm, and chair of the Burlington Telecom Advisory Committee. If Burlington were to make itself universally Wi-Fi capable, Burlington Telecom would be the most likely vendor to do it. But Epler Wood says he’s not convinced that’s where BT should be making its capital investments right now. Other cities have tried ubiquitous Wi-Fi, he says, but haven’t found a way to make it cost-effective.

“It’s not the cost,” Epler Wood explains. “It’s how to recoup the cost.” General Manager Chris Burns notes that BT already offers three Wi-Fi hotspots — Leddy Park Arena, City Hall and the Miller Community and Recreation Center — for current BT customers who subscribe to at least two of the company’s “bundled” services: phone, cable TV and Internet. And BT is currently soliciting suggestions for new hotspots.

Still, Burns says there are no plans to “put a canopy” of Wi-Fi services over the city. He believes it makes more sense for the publicly owned BT to finish building out its fiber-to-the-home network and become “cash positive,” thus enabling itself to expand into neighboring communities and increase its revenue stream.

Epler Wood says BT may want to consider offering Wi-Fi hotspots within several hundred feet of all municipally owned buildings. Since those buildings are likely to be already wired with BT fiber, adding a Wi-Fi transmitter wouldn’t require a major cash outlay.

Such a plan could turn many public sites — City Hall Park, upper Church Street, Oakledge Park, even North Beach — into outdoor Internet portals. Of course, gauging the public’s appetite for such services will probably have to wait several months, until the weather is more amenable to outdoor web surfing.

— Ken Picard

Artists’ co-op and studio enclave

Each fall, when several thousand people descend on the city’s South End for Art Hop, newcomers and longtime residents alike marvel at the complex warren of art studios and makeshift galleries that are normally hidden from public view. For many of the artists working there, the annual autumn ritual is the one time of year when their work gets extensive public exposure.

Terry Zigmund, owner of the Burlington Community Glass Studio off Pine Street, thinks Burlington could be doing far more to support its artists. She suggests tearing a page from the history of a highly successful artists’ enclave: The Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

In the late 1960s, the City of Alexandria purchased a complex of vacant federal buildings that had served as a torpedo manufacturing facility during World Wars I and II. It took several years of planning and renovations, but by September 1974 the Torpedo Factory Art Center was open to the public.

Today the place is a major tourist attraction along the Potomac River, drawing approximately a half-million visitors annually. Home to 82 working artists’ studios, 165 visual artists, six galleries, two workshops and an anthropology museum, the Torpedo Factory is much more than just a shopping mall for handmade crafts. It’s an artists’ incubator of sorts, and a prototype for similar art enclaves worldwide.

Could a project like that one, albeit on a smaller scale, take root in Burlington? Doreen Kraft, executive director of Burlington City Arts, knows the Torpedo Factory well. A few years ago, then-Mayor Peter Clavelle visited the center and tried to launch a similar, scale-appropriate project in the Queen City.

“Over the years, we tried to look at different facilities this way,” Kraft says. “But it was so expensive to make it work, and we kept coming up against too many walls.”

One problem, Kraft explains, is that Burlington doesn’t have many vacant buildings. For a time, the city considered buying the old bank building on the corner of St. Paul and College streets. But after “crunching the numbers,” officials couldn’t figure out how to make it economically feasible.

“I don’t see a lot of appetite for big capital campaigns right now,” Kraft adds. Nonetheless, she sees some future opportunities for artists when the Moran Plant is finally renovated. And an artists’ enclave could one day find a home in the so-called “superblock,” where the Burlington Fire Department’s Station 1 and Memorial Auditorium are now located. According to Kraft, both structures may eventually be moved. That said, she thinks “the next generation of thinkers” will have to tackle the issue. Perhaps some of our new city councilors coming aboard this week can take a crack at it.

— Ken Picard

A medium-sized rock club

Burlington needs another rock club. As any self-respecting local rocker staring down middle age will tell you, the Queen City’s music scene was never healthier than during the largely self-proclaimed alt-rock heyday of the late 1990s. Ask why those were such halcyon days, and the response will come without hesitation: Club Toast.

Though it’s easy to view the Toast era through rose-colored glasses, there’s a degree of truth in that sentimental assessment. When (then) midlevel bands toured in the Northeast — think Sublime, Fugazi and Pavement, among many others who graced the lower Church Street dive, often with local openers — they were as likely to stop at Club Toast as at iconic regional venues such as The Middle East (Cambridge, Mass.) or The Bowery Ballroom (NYC). For a glimpse of what we’re missing now that Toast is no more, consider that Asobi Seksu, Propagandhi, Clem Snide and The Black Lips are all touring the Northeast this month. All would draw in Burlington. None is coming closer than Boston.

That’s to take nothing away from Burlington’s existing venues. Particularly given the area’s diminutive population, we boast a vibrant scene with no shortage of great local, regional and national music options from week to week. But you can always have more. And can we be blamed for being just a little greedy?

The real problem is that the greater Burlington area simply lacks an adequate club for midlevel bands. The Monkey House, Nectar’s and Club Metronome are too small. Both Higher Ground rooms are too big. Sadly, there’s no easy fix for this Goldilocks-ian plight.

As great as Toast was, it wasn’t hugely profitable, although co-owner Dennis Wygmans says financial issues weren’t ultimately a factor in the club’s closing. Given the current challenges of weathering a sour economy, finding a sizeable location in a city increasingly less tolerant of late-night shenanigans, and grappling with the liquor control board’s notorious reluctance to issue new licenses, a new nightclub in Burlington seems a long shot at best.

— Dan Bolles

Expand CCTA bus service

Light rail, downtown trolleys, a bullet train to Boston. When it comes to moving people around, Seven Days readers have plenty of ideas. But when you get down to brass tacks, the most common suggestion we heard is also what transportation planners like to hear: Expand regional bus service by adding more frequent runs, new routes and later hours of operation at night and on weekends. A monorail may sound sexy, but buses offer taxpayers the biggest bang for the buck.

Chris Cole is general manager of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA). Not surprisingly, he says the biggest obstacle to expanding bus service is funding. This is especially true in Vermont, where bus routes are regional — that is, they cross numerous town, city and county lines — and are funded by a complex mix of federal, state and local dollars.

Getting all those municipalities to agree on levels of service and funding is like herding cats. For instance, CCTA’s new Essex line runs through Essex, Winooski, Colchester and Burlington. Though the first three municipalities collectively cover 24 percent of the cost of that route, Colchester pays zero. “Colchester should be paying $60,000 for the service they’re getting,” Cole says, especially since a quarter of the ridership comes from Fort Ethan Allen.

But Cole emphasizes that more services are indeed on the horizon. For instance, CCTA is planning a new route from Burlington to Williston to access the big-box stores. Cole is also working on improving and expanding service to the University Mall, which has been plagued with delays due to heavy traffic on Main Street. Another new route to serve Milton is in the works, and several popular city routes will see their hours extended at night and on weekends.

More bus routes are a real likelihood, especially if ridership numbers continue to climb, as they have over the past year. For instance, the 1-year-old Essex line, which runs every 15 minutes during morning and evening rush hours, has seen its ridership rise 40 percent. The Montpelier Link Express boosted its numbers by 64 percent over the last year; the Middlebury Express, by 44 percent.

Finally, Cole says, when eight CCTA buses become eligible for retirement next year, he hopes to replace them with gas/electric hybrid vehicles that run on battery power when they’re traveling under 30 miles per hour and shut off at traffic lights. Now, that’s visionary.

— Ken Picard

An ethnic bazaar for Old North End vendors

Burlington’s Old North End is the only Vermont neighborhood where you’ll find a half-dozen immigrant shopkeepers selling food and wares from Africa and Asia. Ongyel Sherpa, who just opened Himalayan Food Market on North Street, thinks the city could promote that cultural diversity better by sponsoring a weekly “Ethnic Bazaar.”

In Sherpa’s mind, the event would be staged on North Street every Saturday and include neighborhood artisans. “That’s what happens in Nepal,” he says of the bazaar concept. “It would be good because it gets people out of the house and helps them get to know each other.”

Waell Murray, who owns Global Markets on North Winooski Avenue, agrees that an ethnic bazaar would benefit the Old North End business community. But it should be staged downtown on a weekday, he opines, adding that a Saturday bazaar might conflict with the Burlington Farmers’ Market.

“It’s not a bad idea to have a bazaar, especially for minorities and refugees,” Murray adds. “They have some hidden treasures. Putting the [treasures] out in the open would be a nice thing, and it’ll move some money around.”

As it turns out, officials at Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office have already tried to start a downtown bazaar. Two summers ago, CEDO sponsored and marketed the “ONE World Market” on two Wednesdays in City Hall Park and during the South End Art Hop in September.

Bruce Seifer, CEDO’s assistant director for economic development, suggests the ONE World Market is a logical extension of the city’s commitment to small business owners and a great way to empower immigrant entrepreneurs. However, he notes, it needs outside financial support to survive.

After the pilot ONE World Market in 2007, Seifer applied for federal and private grants, but his applications were denied. Then he asked organizers of the Burlington Farmers’ Market if they would consider adding Old North End vendors. But the farmers, Seifer says, still haven’t warmed to his proposal.

— Mike Ives

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About The Author

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles is Seven Days' assistant arts editor and also edits What's Good, the annual city guide to Burlington. He has received numerous state, regional and national awards for his coverage of the arts, music, sports and culture. He loves dogs, dark beer and the Boston Red Sox.


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