Why Planning and Zoning Get Such a Bad Name

As noir as it should be.

This came out a couple weeks ago, but I didn’t want to let it pass completely by.

Earlier this month, Seven Days published a story about a hearing that happened in June about the fate of Burlington’s long-derelict Midtown Motel. Until The Curse of The Pit struck the city, this motel was arguably the biggest eyesore on a generally good-lookin’ downtown.

The Midtown’s been closed for 15 years, and every time I pass it by, I wonder how in hell this thing is still standing. In fact, to give you an idea how long this situation has lingered, Seven Days published one of its “WTF” pieces about the Midtown in 2011 — nine years ago. It was entitled “What’s the deal with Burlington’s Midtown Motel?” (To get the full effect, use your Jerry Seinfeld voice.)

Even then, the Midtown’s survival was a topic of befuddlement. And now, nearly a decade later, Burlington’s Development Review Board has rejected a proposal by the building’s owner to tear it down and create a small parking lot in its place.

A parking lot isn’t the most creative use for the property — but it’s a tremendous improvement over a blighted building that’s way beyond repair. So why the official cold shoulder?

City Planner Scott Gustin explained.

“The problem’s never been about tearing it down. The problem remains: What are you going to do with it?” Gustin said. “I can’t find anything in the city’s zoning code … that says tearing anything down for the sake of expanded surface parking is a good thing.”

Oh really now. I’d say Gustin is missing the point. Tearing down an eyesore in a crucial location ought to qualify as “a good thing” no matter what the redevelopment plan.

There was also some chatter about the MIdtown’s potential architectural significance. But c’mon now, it was utilitarian on its best days, and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking on a costly restoration that would result in… a small budget motel. Not much meat on them bones.

As for the parking lot issue, the Midtown’s owners view it as a transition to whatever comes next. The entire block, which includes a small badly-paved city parking lot and the Memorial Auditorium, a decrepit building that might actually be worth saving, is inline for redevelopment as part of the city’s long-range PlanBTV.

Co-owner Jeff Nick says he plans to file an application next month to simply tear down the Midtown, with no stated replacement. Honestly, is that preferable to a parking lot? Really?

To add insult to injury, the owners have to continue paying $2,000 a year in vacant building fees as long as the Midtown still stands.

This is a prime example of why city planning boards are so often seen as niggling obstructionists. And why you hear so many landowners and developers despair of getting anything done in Burlington. A little common sense would go a long way in this situation.

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