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Built to Last 

What do the "experts" want from Burlington's new zoning ordinance?

Published January 11, 2006 at 2:19 p.m.

Burlington's residents aren't alone in ignoring the city's zoning rewrite. The same can be said for many of the professionals who deal with zoning issues every day: builders, architects, housing experts, historic preservationists and anti-sprawl advocates.

Seven Days asked four area professionals what they know about the rewrite and, more importantly, what they'd like to see included in the final version. Many of their comments have to do with ways to make designing and building here more efficient. Other suggestions were bigger-picture items and beyond the reach of a zoning ordinance. Planner David White says that's OK. Whatever public comments don't fit in the zoning rewrite could still become part of the master plan, also slated for a rewrite.

Tom Cullins, architect, Truex, Cullins & Partners of Burlington:

Cullins is a third-generation Burlington resident who has worked as an architect here since 1968. His firm has designed some of the city's most recognizable buildings, including luxury condos at College and Battery Streets and the newer buildings at Champlain College. His firm also designed the Westlake Residences and Marriott Hotel now under construction on Battery Street (see accompanying story).

Cullins would like to see the city allow for greater housing density. He points to Champlain's new student residence hall as an example of increased density that also fits within the fabric of the neighborhood. "This city needs to grow within its boundaries if it's going to continue to compete with surrounding development," he says. "In particular, what we need is more residential."

Cullins says that many people who move to Burlington from larger urban areas assume they're living "in the country" and don't want the city to grow any larger. "Burlington is the only real urban city Vermont has," he says. "The whole state is its park." Unless Burlington can provide more housing in its urban core and keep "bodies here 24 hours a day," he believes, the city will lose out to neighboring towns and sprawl.

Finally, Cullins says the permitting process needs to be simplified. "It's just terribly complicated and extremely, extremely expensive," he says. "I'm not always confident that people in public positions have a grasp of the [costs] that some of their decisions create."

Stu McGowan, builder, ShoeLess Konstruction:

McGowan isn't your average builder. Although he owns 40 units in 25 mostly residential buildings around Burlington, and admits the permitting process can be cumbersome, he doesn't have any serious complaints about it. In fact, McGowan doesn't mind that the city exercises tough oversight of his work. "I have confidence in the intelligence of our city government," he says. "I have faith in their vision."

Like Cullins, McGowan would like to see the review process streamlined. "I actually like the challenge of trying to figure out messes," he says. "But for the average citizen, they don't have the time, the energy or the desire to do that."

McGowan, who's done a lot of redevelopment in the Old North End and has many low-income tenants, wants the zoning rewrite to encourage more mixed-use development. Specifically, he'd like to see more neighborhood storefronts -- cafes, bakeries, coffee shops -- which serve residents and attract visitors.

John Ewing, founder and board chair, Vermont Forum on Sprawl:

As one of five panelists at this month's Burlington Business Summit, Ewing is also one of the few people in town who's been following the zoning rewrite process. That's not surprising, since he probably knows more than most Vermonters about land-use issues. In 1995, Governor Howard Dean appointed him to chair the Vermont Environmental Board, which he left in 1998 to found the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. Ewing chairs the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and serves on several other panels that address land-use issues.

Ewing suggests that Burlington expand the boundaries of its downtown corridor to take advantage of assistance from the Vermont Downtown Program, a statewide initiative that helps communities revitalize their commercial districts. He calls for streamlining the permitting process to promote growth in areas that are already built up. "Today it's much easier for a developer to develop a cornfield than to develop in downtown," he says.

Ewing believes Burlington should abandon its current de novo review permit appeals process, which requires developers to essentially reargue their entire case from square one. He'd like to see it replaced by an on-the-record review, in which courts can review an official transcript of an application hearing. This more formalized process would save developers time and money, he says. Burlington can't make this change through the zoning rewrite ordinance alone -- it would require a change in state law.

Nancy Williams, executive director, Preservation Burlington:

As an historic preservationist, Williams knows that cities aren't museum pieces fixed in time but organic entities that grow to meet their residents' needs.

"How tall is too tall? I'm asked that all the time," Williams says. "Perhaps after a public debate, we'll decide, like Boston, to develop a ridge or spine of high rises to accommodate new growth. Or perhaps we'll decide, like Savannah, Georgia, to build nothing higher than the golden dome of city hall."

Williams prefers buildings that are on a more human scale, "because they fit within our narrow streets. They define us, they give us a sense of place and they allow the sun to pass by."

She worries about Burlington's residential neighborhoods, and the trend toward lot mergers that could erode the character of desirable neighborhoods such as the Five Sisters in the South End. She hopes the new zoning rewrite doesn't permit too much infill development.

"To some people in the political world, they want to see a lot of extra housing," she says. "But for other people, they moved to Burlington because it's a neat place to live, you can have a view, a green back yard and trees. That'll change if we're getting too much infill."

Williams would also like to see more UVM students housed on campus, and many student apartments converted back into single-family homes. "Why are we packing people into back yards?" she asks. "We've got some wonderful neighborhoods, but a lot of them are under stress."

Williams doesn't believe Burlington has much to fear from its neighbors, as long as it doesn't try to emulate the strip malls, discount centers, parking lots and chain stores of neighboring towns. Its new zoning ordinance should reflect those values.

"Museums, libraries and concert halls are the cultural centers of great cities. You already have them here," she says. "You have nothing to fear from [other] Chittenden County towns growing up, and much to enjoy and share with them."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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