The First Warm Day in Burlington

What comes to mind when you hear Burlington, Vermont? Ben & Jerry’s, Lake Champlain, Phish, Bernie Sanders, perhaps a Coat Factory? Recently I was fortunate enough to visit along with a dozen representatives from Ithaca, New York. We found some surprising parallels between our two places.

Church Street

Four blocks of downtown Burlington’s Church Street are closed to vehicular traffic. The church at the northern end of the pedestrian mall provides a memorable terminating vista. It also served as a landmark that helped me navigate the city.

We were fortunate to visit on the first warm day of spring which drew out crowds of locals and visitors. While most retailers and restaurants were local businesses, about one-quarter of the spaces were occupied by national chain stores according to our host.

One unusual feature of downtown is the Burlington Town Center Mall. Until recently, this enclosed mall was occupied by brand name stores and occupied three full blocks in the heart of the city. (The only other place have seen an enclosed shopping mall in a core downtown area was Columbus Ohio’s City Center.) According to our guide, a developer has been working to redevelop the site into a mixed-use apartment tower. Almost all of the tenant spaces inside the mall were empty and demolition was underway. It will be fascinating to see how this project affects the feel of downtown once its complete.

Our group got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Flynn Theater which serves as an entertainment anchor at the south end of Church Street. This structure which was originally built for silent movies and vaudeville performances has gone through a long evolution in its roughly 80 year history.

Waterfront

The City of Burlington sits on the western shore of Lake Champlain. The Adirondack Mountains provide some of the most remarkable scenery in any city in the Eastern US. The city has invested in making its waterfront a desirable location for residents and visitors.

Our group toured the Community Sailing Center which recently expanded into a new building. This group provides affordable classes and education for people throughout the community on sailing – a hobby that has become exceedingly expensive as access to the lake has diminished.

The waterfront hosts a 14 mile bike/pedestrian path known as the Burlington Greenway or the Island Line Bike Path. This cornerstone of the city’s transportation network undoubtedly helped some of the dozens of kids get to the skate park located between a dilapidated coal-fired power plant and the sailing center. According to our hosts, the bike path connected into a series of regional trails which can take you as far north as Montreal, Quebec.

The mothballed Plant Moran serves as a symbol of the city’s transition to fully renewable energy sources. This former coal-fired municipal power plant was operational for only 31 years. It’s exhaust was notorious for obscuring some of the best lake views in the city. Now residents brag on the fact that Burlington was the first US city to switch to renewable energy sources.

What’s not to like?

One salient critique I heard was that things in Burlington take excessively long to come to fruition. Seemingly endless public hearings and bureaucratic delays have hurt the city’s prospects and scared away potential investors. Burlington is hardly alone in this respect – many places are criticized for allowing timelines for important projects stretch into the distant future.

In spite of Burlington’s status as the largest city in Vermont, a beacon of progressive political activity and the home of a major public university (UVM), the city felt racially homogeneous. Perhaps my own experience in Savannah (which is a minority-majority community) has altered my expectations. While there are likely historic reasons for the city’s whiteness, it feels like there is a lot of work to do to make the place appealing to a more diverse groups.

Like nearly every city in North America, increasing cost of housing has outpaced wage growth. While some transformative projects are on the horizon (like the Town Center mall project above) and the city has a living wage ordinance, it appears that the pace of housing development has not tracked the demand.

Burlington packs a lot of activity into a compact destination. My only regret is that I didn’t have more time to explore it.