One of the things that always perplexes me about anti-development activists in Vermont is how fragile they believe our state’s character is. To hear them tell it, a single development here or there will forever alter Vermont for the worse, and trash our pristine image.
Myself, I believe our state’s character is built of stronger stuff, and can withstand a reasonable amount of development.
Ditto Burlington, a small town by most standards but our largest metropolis. There’s a kneejerk reaction to any growth or development proposal in the city, as if it will be forever shattered if it has a few tall buildings or more people, or if we were to mix some housing into the artists’ colony in the South End, or just about anything else that might add to the population. .
Well, as a person who lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, I can tell you that a city can accommodate a frightening amount of growth without losing its character. Ann Arbor remains a funky town full of interesting, creative people, even though it has a lot of tall buildings downtown and a lot of in-fill development.
Yeah, the traffic sucks, but it’s always more or less sucked.
Beyond that, I believe in a simple propostion: Burlington needs to get bigger. For the sake of its people and its economy — but more importantly, for the sake of Vermont’s future.
Ever since I-89 bypassed Rutland, Burlington has been Vermont’s #1 city, and it always will be. If we are to attract new residents here, especially younger people, then Burlington is where the vast majority are going to end up.
It’s where the jobs are, it’s where the growth is, and it’s where there is our closest approximation to city life — events, concerts, restaurants, activities, the creative people.
Most people don’t like small-town life. And everything besides Burlington is small by others’ standards. Vermont’s population is declining everywhere outside of Chittenden County. And even if we get universal broadband and encourage startup entrepreneurialism elsewhere in Vermont, Burlington will remain the state’s biggest magnet.
If you don’t want Vermont to go into a decline phase, then Burlington will have to grow. And no, I don’t buy the notion that Vermont can be sustainable with our current population; it’s getting older and older, purely because of our low birthrate. Our changing demographics put more and more pressure on public services, especially health care.
Unless we suddenly start popping out babies like it’s 1899, we’ll have to attract emigrants from other states and nations. And, as I said, most of them will want to live in or near Burlington.
So I think Don Sinex’s plan to redevelop Burlington Town Center is a great idea. I don’t think 14 stories will turn the city into am urban wasteland. The city could stand to grow upward, and even if the views of Lake Champlain are somewhat compromised, hell, it’s just a few minutes away.
I think Eric Farrell’s plan for the former Burlington College is also a great idea. It preserves parkland near the lake, which is the most desirable location for most people. It provides a booster shot of rental housing.
Speaking of housing, yes, I do want a significant quantity of affordable housing in any new development. But I also want market-rate housing, and some higher-end housing wouldn’t be a bad thing either.
I want more people, more kids in the schools, more tax revenue into city coffers, and an even more dynamic mix of culture, recreation, and commerce. I want Burlington to be a strong, dynamic engine for Vermont. It can happen. And, believe it or not, it will still be recognizably Burlington.
You can’t freeze a community in time. You can’t preserve it exactly as-is. In the words of Bob Dylan, “he not busy being born is busy dying.”