My Turn: Burlington is at a crossroad
Burlington is well-documented as one of the top cities to live. As a native Vermonter and someone who has lived my entire life in and around Burlington, I’ve experienced first hand the charm, beauty, and community that help garner these accolades.
But good looks are only part of a holistic delivery of a full-service, livable, walkable and sustainable community. Burlington is in need of some critical development if it hopes to continue to deliver the appeal and vitality that residents, businesses, organizations and visitors expect and enjoy.
Fundamental to any development discussion is housing. One of society’s basic needs, the Burlington area, particularly downtown Burlington, has a severe housing shortage that makes it extremely difficult for individuals and families of all age and income levels to buy or rent an affordable place to live. Additionally, lack of affordable housing adversely affects the business community, challenging both prospective and existing businesses alike to attract and retain quality jobs and workers.
To build awareness of this issue, Mayor Miro Weinberger and the Community and Economic Development Office have published a Downtown Housing Strategy Report that state the problems, the opportunities, and impact of not addressing both.
The more the citizens of Burlington understand the scope of this problem, the more readily decisions can be made to improve the situation.
From this report we know that over 60 percent of Burlington renters are paying 44 percent of their income in rent — one of the highest in the nation. Burlington metro area renters typically work 1.6 full-time average wage jobs to afford a fair market rent (FMR) of $1,029 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. However, in downtown Burlington average market rents are nearly twice the FMR rate.
This widening gap between wages and housing costs is unhealthy and does not promote a vibrant, safer, inclusive, and sustainable economy and community.
Low supply, high demand
Despite the low supply, high demand, and a rental vacancy rate of approximately 1 percent, downtown Burlington has seen very little market rate housing development. Of the 222 multi-family units constructed in downtown over the past decade, only 18 units were built as market rate multifamily rentals.
The linchpin to current downtown housing and development discussions and initiatives is Burlington Town Center (BTC). The single largest enterprise and property tax payer in the downtown, BTC is an outdated mall that is in the process of redevelopment efforts by its two-year owner, Don Sinex of Devonwood Investors.
With plans to invest $200 million to revitalize BTC with local retail and office space, expanded parking, community public space, and reconnecting Pine and St. Paul streets — this is a multi-faceted gift for a small out-of-the-way city like Burlington. This project stands to rejuvenate parts of downtown that are worn and beat, create jobs and build community.
At the heart of this project is adding 250 new low-and moderate-income downtown housing units. This would significantly improve downtown Burlington’s housing shortage while bolstering a more livable, walkable, and vibrant downtown.
In June 2013, the Burlington City Council adopted Plan BTV. An 18-month collaboration between the people of Burlington, the City of Burlington, and Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative LLC, Plan BTV is a comprehensive downtown and waterfront development plan that embraces the best parts of Burlington while strengthening the weaknesses. If there’s one underlying component that glues it all together, it is housing. A revitalized Burlington Town Center is integral to Plan BTV and building a better Burlington.
Burlington is at a crossroad — remain as is or build upon its strengths for a more sustainable future. Burlington’s population has remained stagnant for over 15 years. Some would revel in this, but Burlington’s highest and best use is not remaining small and sleepy. Rather, Burlington is, and should continually evolve to be, the small city that fuels our regional economy, arts & culture, tourism, education, health care, social services, entertainment and more.
Thirty five years ago, Burlington was at a similar crossroad. The visionaries and leaders of that time envisioned a better Burlington with people, rather than vehicles, cruising up and down Church Street.
Tom Brassard is a native of Burlington and a local small business owner. He lives in South Burlington.
This article was originally published by the Burlington Free Press.