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June 30, 2010

Champlain College Backs Off Interest in Wharf Lane Low-Income Housing

6a00d83451b91969e2013483b6cad1970c-320wi A top Champlain College official said the school is officially taking its name out of the running as a potential purchaser of of an apartment building that houses 44 low-income residents.

In May, news of the sale of Wharf Lane Apartments on lower Maple Street raised concerns among housing advocates. They feared the building would go to the highest bidder, rather than to one of the non-profit, low-income housing developers in order to keep the 37 apartments, and its residents, in perpetually affordable housing.

Champlain College broke the news to Mayor Bob Kiss at this week's city council meeting.

"Champlain College never had an active interest," David Provost, senior vice president of finance and administration, told Seven Days. "As I explained before my assistant looked at the property back in March and we have not made any other inquiries to the property since then.  Currently, this property is not on our list of interesting potential properties."

While Provost claims the school had no serious interest in buying the property, this is the first time it has unequivocally said it wouldn't pursue a purchase.

In April, Provost told Seven Days the school had toured the property after being invited in by the owner — Pizzigalli Properties. At the time, the college was undecided about a purchase, but said it needed to keep its options open due to the fact that it had scaled back an on-campus project due to neighborhood concerns.

"This project on Maple Street is of interest to Champlain due to its size and proximity to campus," Provost noted at the time. "It is no surprise to anyone that Champlain is looking to house all of its students to alleviate the pressure on rental apartments throughout the city. So we look at properties all the time."

Last week, residents held a public meeting with local housing advocates to better inform tenants about their rights as the sale moves forward.

"We really want the building to be saved, but we also want to get the tenants more involved in how the building is managed so we have a voice in the process both during the sale and after," said Vera Newman, a Wharf Lane resident.

The tenants have also started an online petition to help save their building from being sold to a private developer who is not interested in keeping the apartments affordable.

As of now, the sale is on hold, according to Vermont Housing Finance Agency officials. VHFA holds the mortgage and has the first option on the property. Once an appraisal of the property is completed, VHFA will have 90 days to act on the option, and then another 90 days to finance a purchase.

The sale hit a snag in recent weeks due to a sinkhole that occurred in the parking lot and a fire that displaced five families.

"On top of the sinkhole issues the fire damage is not yet fully fixed, which would also really impact the appraisal figure so we're waiting until that is completed before ordering one," said Maura Collins, VHFA's policy and program manager. "So, it's still moving slowly."

Paul Dettman, the executive director of Burlington Housing Authority which is the building's property manager, said work on the burned-out apartments is ongoing. The repairs have been delayed due to negotiations by the building's owner with its insurance company and with city code officials.

In the meantime, Mayor Kiss has convened a "working group" to look at not only Wharf Lane, but also other affordable housing projects whose 30-year federal mortgages are coming to an end. Several other properties in Burlington face a similar fate to Wharf Lane in the coming years: the Bobbin Mill apartments, South Meadow and the McKenzie House.

"It's not to early to start looking at these other properties," said Kiss. "There are a lot of complex issues that need to be addressed well in advance and this working group will allow the city to do that."

Kiss said he was glad that Champlain College has backed off — officially — from an interest in Wharf Lane.

"When it comes to college housing it's always easier to talk about places not to go rather than places where they can go, and one of the plans of the zoning rewrite is to help expand the housing density downtown which would help address their needs," said Kiss.

The college, too, has purchased the former Eagles Club and the Ethan Allen Club buildings which it plans to convert into student housing in the future.

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