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November 05, 2013

Waterfront Development Inches Ahead as City Council Gets Briefed on Nine Plans

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An expanded marina, a Cherry Street "promenade" and a Moran Plant transformed into an aquatics center or, alternately, a space for food, galleries and "makers" were among nine infrastructure-improvement proposals outlined at a Burlington City Council session on Monday. 

It was another step in a waterfront development process that began early this year and will culminate in a vote on Town Meeting Day in March. A five-member Public Investment Team of planners, architects and developers winnowed 50 proposals submitted to the city last April to the current crop of nine, which Burlington residents can review at a series of five open houses starting next week. 

The nine plans are vying for shares of $5 million in city funds to be generated through a tax increment financing (TIF) bond. One of the two envisioned Moran makeovers would consume all $5 million in TIF money, while a plan for more than doubling Burlington's marina capacity would require $3 million in TIF revenues. The other proposals seek more modest amounts of public financing, but altogether the nine plans are requesting $17 million of the money to be borrowed against anticipated property tax revenue increases to be generated by the infrastructure improvements.  

Because only $5 million is available, the panel of experts will have to eliminate some of the nine plans from consideration during the next month, city development official Nate Wildfire told councilors last night. Mayor Miro Weinberger added that the remaining proposals will be packaged as a single slate to be assessed by the city council before being referred to voters for a yes-or-no verdict in March.

If approved by a simple majority on Town Meeting Day, construction could begin on some of the projects as early as next summer, Weinberger said. "Others will have to wait another year" due to their complexity, he remarked to nine of 14 councilors who attended the hour-long briefing in a city hall conference room.  

Three proposals being offered by the city's Department of Parks & Recreation are focused on nuts-and-bolts upgrades. One would stabilize the shoreline and manicure informal trails that cut through the 40-acre urban reserve north of the Moran Plant at a cost of $500,000. Another, at $1.5 million, calls for adding electrical and water capacity at Waterfront Park to better accommodate the many festivals held there. 

The third Parks & Rec plan is more ambitious. It involves construction of a two- or three-story marina supply building south of Perkins Pier as part of an initiative that would enable many more boats to moor on Burlington's waterfront. "We're by far the largest population center on Lake Champlain," Wildfire noted, "and we've got the ninth-largest marina on the lake."

Private developers are seeking to undertake a similar expansion in marina capacity, but their plan, tailored to a site adjacent to the Moran Plant, seeks only $500,000 in TIF funds — one-sixth the sum sought by the Parks & Rec marina proposal.

The city's Department of Public Works wants a $2.7 million cut of the TIF funding to "remove the back-alley feel" of Cherry Street between the Marketplace and Battery Street. Sidewalks would be widened, trees planted and new lighting installed as part of this effort to attract pedestrians, cyclists and motorists to a street that currently offers few amenities.

Two waterfront institutions — the Community Sailing Center and the ECHO museum — have submitted separate proposals for expansions of their facilities. The sailing center is requesting $475,000 in TIF money to build a 10,000-square-foot building for classroom, office and storage uses. ECHO is bidding for $2 million from the TIF kitty to create a "sustainability park" on its property south of the museum. "It would continue the experience of the boardwalk north of ECHO," Wildfire explained last night.

Independent City Councilor Karen Paul is point woman for a private development proposal for a swimming pool and related facilities that would make use of the Moran Plant. Some $2.5 million in TIF funds would be needed to put this project into motion.

The "New Moran" proposal for multiple uses of the derelict power plant combines four plans submitted at the earlier stage of the waterfront investment process. This private-sector package is the costliest of the nine ideas in terms of TIF outlay. It seeks all $5 million to be made available if voters approve the bond in March.

Eliminated from contention prior to last night's presentation were a couple of visionary schemes that had attracted attention earlier this year. The "urban gondola" linking Church Street to the waterfront didn't make the cut. Neither did the notion of building a new Burlington High School on the urban reserve, with BHS' current site to be redeveloped with 1000 units of housing.  

Pictured above: CEDO Director Peter Owens (left) and Assistant Director Nate Wildfire 

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