The race for mayor of Burlington has a clear and concise theme, at least in the minds of the media: it’s a referendum on development, with incumbent Miro Weinberger favoring growth and his main opponents, Steve Goodkind and Greg Guma, resisting change. It’s an oversimplification, but there’s a lot of truth in it — especially when his critics are typecasting the Mayor as a willing partner of rapacious developers.
There’s a big disconnect at work here. In reality, the question is not, will Burlington get bigger? The question is, how will it grow and how will it manage change? Because like it or not, Burlington is going to grow. In fact, I would argue that Burlington needs to grow, for the sake of Chittenden County and the entire state.
Burlington is a highly desirable place to live. Beautiful setting, great food, a lively cultural scene, close to recreation of all sorts, and full of opportunity for entrepreneurs and garden-variety job-seekers. Its housing market reflects all of that: homes and rental properties are scarce and expensive.
The city itself has seen modest population growth, from 36,000 in 1960 to 42,000 in 2010. The population pressure has been forced outward: in the same 50-year period, while Burlington’s population has increased by roughly 18%, Chittenden County’s population has nearly tripled — from 63,000 in 1960 to 157,000 in 2010.
That outward development pattern carries heavy costs: loss of farmland and open space, traffic density over a wider area, higher costs for building and maintaining infrastructure, and the toll on Lake Champlain from all those impervious surfaces. This trend is only going to continue, and the region would be much better off if more of the development were to take place in Burlington.
Vermont likes to position itself as a technology center. To the extent this is true, its hub is Burlington. That’s where the activity is, that’s where most of the techies want to live, that’s where the successful tech enterprises and startups are located. If our tech economy is to grow, Burlington will grow with it. If we artificially depress growth in Burlington, we will also limit the growth of the tech sector.
The state has a real problem with its aging population. Burlington is the most attractive place in Vermont for young people to live*. But as things stand now, many of them are priced out of a market in which supply fails to meet demand. Burlington is our best hope for attracting a cadre of young people who can build their careers and raise their families in Vermont. We can best do that by boosting available housing and rental stock. This is especially true for the working-class Burlingtonians so cherished by Goodkind and Guma: if housing prices are high and rentals are scarce, how does that enhance the city’s affordability?
*Quick story. When we first moved to New England, we lived in a town of about 4,000 people in New Hampshire. We liked it, although there were some drawbacks. A couple years after our arrival, a younger couple from our old hometown moved to the same NH town. And they moved out within a year, relocating to a city of 50,000, because small town life was just too damn quiet. They were actively unnerved by it. A lot of people are like that. And by most outside standards, Burlington is the only real city in Vermont.
The tides of history, geography and finance have made Burlington, and Chittenden County, the locus of Vermont’s economy: its population center, its best hope for the future. That’s made Burlington a prosperous and vibrant place to live, which wasn’t the case through most of its existence. With that success come internal challenges and external responsibilities. You can’t evade that by just saying “No.”
As for the desire to preserve Burlington’s “character,” whatever that means, it’s an impossible dream. Burlington is changing. Burlington is growing. Resisting development is not a wise or tenable strategy. Managing development, so that the future Burlington is a desirable place to live and work, is the right approach. The future Burlington might not look exactly like the present edition, but it can be an even better place — for its residents and for the entire state.
This is not an endorsement of Miro Weinberger’s candidacy. I don’t live in Burlington and I haven’t studied his performance or his opponents’ records enough to make that judgment. I’m writing what I see from a distance, and among many of his opponents I see a futile misperception of reality.