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January 28, 2014

Burlington City Council Approves Sweeping Waterfront Redevelopment Proposal, Sending it to Voters

IMG_0240The Burlington City Council gave its blessing Monday night to a multimillion-dollar plan for redeveloping Burlington's downtown waterfront. The approval clears the path for the proposal to go before voters on Town Meeting Day.

The redevelopment plan bundles six projects into one and would rely on $7.5 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) to come to fruition. TIF money lets cities and towns allocate future tax revenues from within a defined district for use on public infrastructure projects. 

The plan would also draw on other public and private funding sources.

At its cornerstone is a $26 million proposal to convert the Moran Plant into a performance space,  rooftop restaurant, “nano-brewery” and "maker space."

The city launched a public competition for proposals last January, and the committee in charge amassed 120 of them before narrowing the field to nine. Mayor Miro Weinberger selected the final slate two weeks ago, and he also tacked on a contingency plan to the Moran proposal.

That backup plan was the greatest source of contention among mostly enthusiastic city council members Monday. If residents approve the revelopment package, they’ll also be acquiescing to a single alternative, should the Moran renovation not pan out — demolition of the former coal-burning power plant on the shore of Lake Champlain.

The only two councilors who voted against the plan — Rachel Siegel and Vince Brennan, both Progressives representing Ward 3 — said they liked the Moran Plan proposal itself, but they couldn’t stomach the prospect of demolition.  (Two other councilors recused themselves, citing a conflict of interest.)

“It is muddy to have two questions mixed together as one question,” Siegel said. “That we have to say yes to both is problematic to me.”

Jane Knodell, P-Ward 2, contended that the “all or nothing” approach will rally voters around the project, improving its chances of success.  Weinberger, too, defended his plan and Councilor Dave Hartnett, D-Ward 4, who also supports it, argued that residents deserve “closure” after years of failed attempts to refurbish the plant.

Brennan solicited reassurance from the Moran Plant project leaders — Charlie Tipper, a redeveloper, and University of Vermont seniors Erick Crockenberg and Tad Cooke — that their plan was fail-safe.

He didn’t get it.  “Our audacity only goes so far,” Tipper told him.

Clinching first Mayor Miro Weinberger’s support and now that of the city council are two major stepping stones for the project, but, as Tipper pointed out, they still have to clear a series of daunting financial hurdles.  Weinberger allocated the largest share of TIF money to the project — $4.2 million on top of  $2.1 million that had been previously allocated to the plant — but the team still needs to raise about $20 million on its own.

“These are really tough milestones. I can’t promise you we are going to succeed. I can promise you we are going to give it hell like nobody’s business,” Tipper told the council.

Also present to defend the plan were Peter Owens, who directs the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), Nathan Wildfire, CEDO’s assistant director, members of the committee that reviewed the plan and leaders of the other five projects. 

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