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July 11, 2012

Dreams for Downtown and the Waterfront Move Closer to the Drawing Board

BurlingtonVisions of a radically remade downtown and waterfront took a small step closer to reality Tuesday evening as Burlington planning commissioners got a power-point preview of the "Plan BTV" report.

A draft version of the document — the product of a week-long public brainstorming session held in January — will be released online in a few days. By the end of July, the city will release the report in magazine format, in the hope it will evolve into the first-ever master plan for Burlington's urban core.

The report is replete with heady ideas. And judging from public participation at the public design "charrette" back in January, some proposals — such as the greening of streets between the Church Street Marketplace and the waterfront — will win wide favor. Others, like construction of a parking garage in the slope below Battery Park, seem likely to generate agita.

As was the case during the January brainstorm, there was enthusiasm at last night's meeting for creation of pedestrian and cyclist north-south connections through the Burlington Square complex, which includes the Burlington Town Center Mall. Commenting on Planning Director David White's presentation of the draft plan, commission member Yves Bradley said the 1960s urban renewal breakup of downtown streets constituted "one of the biggest mistakes ever made by this city."

Excited discussion ensued when commissioners were shown a drawing depicting back-in diagonal parking spaces along Main Street. Snickering greeted White's assurance that a charrette-generated scheme for "chickens on Church" will not be included in the draft plan. But, he added, the decision to forego free-range fowl does not preclude the option of introducing "edible landscapes" on the Marketplace's top block.

As part of its re-imagining of the waterfront, Plan BTV calls for "embracing the Barge Canal." Boardwalks and interpretative signs could be installed at the Pine Street superfund site, White explained.

An expanded marina, or perhaps a hotel, could be built near the current ferry dock if it were relocated just south of Perkins Pier, the draft suggests. But a proposal to attach scores of boat slips to the breakwater might not be feasible, White warned, because (who knew?) the breakwater is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In general, the plan privileges pedestrians and cyclists over motor vehicles, although it does include the addition of downtown garages as well as parking facilities on the periphery of the city's center. Stronger north-south bike links are envisioned, along with a spruced-up "alley walk" through the College Street passageway near the Burlington Free Press building; it envisions connecting that alley to the corridor between city hall and the BCA Center, and on through City Hall Park to the Lawson Lane link between St. Paul and Main streets.

"We need more housing of every economic level and type and configuration" on downtown streets, White declared. Plan BTV addresses that by sketching "infill" construction on empty lots — most prominently at the corner of Main Street and South Winooski Avenue — and atop existing low-rise structures, such as the Town Center mall.

"A defining icon for the Burlington waterfront" could take the form of a pavilion at Lake and College streets, White suggested. Styled to complement nearby Union Station, this structure might serve as the year-round home for the Burlington farmers' market, the plan proposes.

Planning commissioner Andy Montroll questioned the feasibility of some components of the draft, such as "punch-throughs" of the Town Center mall to re-create continuums of Pine and St. Paul streets. Bradley, who was chairing the meeting, replied that the draft should be understood as "a visioning plan." He added, "a lot of this is wishful thinking or throwing stuff at the wall." Indeed, a few of the innovations outlined last night were first broached many years ago and have never progressed toward implementation.

"At least it starts a dialogue," Bradley said of Plan BTV. "Inevitably, it will lead to some good change."

All Burlingtonians will be able to join the dialogue by means of an interactive tool being incorporated into the forthcoming online version of the plan. Comments will be received through September 30, after which more discussions will take place at public meetings.

Eventually, White said, Plan BTV will lead to a rewrite of the city's zoning ordinance. That initiative is already being formulated by the Tennessee-based consulting firm that Burlington retained last year to lead the charrette and develop the draft plan. Funding comes from a $187,000 federal urban-design grant awarded to the city.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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