Way Down In The Hole

[Not Exactly As Illustrated]

Brookfield Asset Management, the alleged developer of Burlington’s infamous hole in the ground, continues to be frustratingly vague about its plans and its timeline for actually building something on the former site of the Burlington Town Center. And folks, this could turn out to be the defining issue in the March 2021 city elections, when incumbent Mayor Miro Weinberger is expected to seek a third term.

And, to craft the ultimate in mixed metaphors, that hole may become a millstone around his neck.

Demolition of the old mall began nearly two years ago. Original developer Don Sinex began boasting of big plans for the site way back in 2014. He tapped out earlier this year, and Brookfield stepped into the void.

(Sorry.)

(Although Sinex’s grand vision for Burlington CityPlace can, for shits and giggles, still be seen on its splashy website. Maybe cityplaceburlington.com been declared a historic monument or summat.)

City leaders are pressing Brookfield for some measure of certainty about its plans. Brookfield has failed to miss planning benchmarks since it took over the property. It presented sketches of a site plan to for the site to city council last month, but many crucial details remain to be filled in.

Weinberger, who was a loud and vocal supporter of Sinex and has now, a little more cautiously, tossed his hat into the Brookfield ring, is sounding a little antsy. Seven Days:

“We are looking for them to do more, quickly, to prove … that, in the end, it’s going to succeed,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said. “We are looking for some further confirmation on that.”

Good luck with that, Mr. Mayor. And good luck running for re-election if the hole is still a hole in early 2021. Which is not terribly farfetched; every step on a project of this scope is going to take time, especially in a micromanaging community like Burlington.

As Seven Days’ Courtney Lamdin details, Brookfield has to jump through a lot of hoops before it can even begin construction. They include submitting an actual plan, obtaining necessary permits and running a gauntlet of public meetings where notoriously cranky Burlingtonians are sure to pick every available nit. And maybe even go to court, as happened with Sinex and with just about any controversy that ever happens in the city. The plan may also have to go through the state’s lengthy Act 250 process.

There are also questions about whether Brookfield’s downsized plan would produce enough new tax revenue to pay off voter-approved city bonds issued to fund necessary infrastructure work.

Yep, this is a TIF project, and it provides an object lesson in the perils of tax increment financing. In a TIF project, a city issues bonds that are then — in theory — paid off by increased property tax takings. The TIF bonds were issued for Sinex’s larger project. Brookfield’s plan, assuming it gets built, won’t generate as much revenue. (At the very least, Brookfield will have to apply to the state for a revised TIF plan.)

Each TIF project is a gamble, by a municipality, that a private-sector project will be successful. When it works, it can jumpstart redevelopment. When something goes wrong, the municipality is left holding the bag.

More immediately, Weinberger is holding the political bag. He’s gotten quite a bit of flak from the Queen City’s lively progressive wing for being too chummy with developers. He has to be hoping that there’s tangible progress on CityPlace by the end of 2020, and that the finish line is in view before he’d have to face the voters again.

Or, maybe he’ll decide he’s had enough time on the hot seat.

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