By Dick Nelson
Kicking off the AIA New England annual conference, Miro Weinberger, mayor of the host city, told visiting architects from around the six-state region that Burlington is on the cusp of a second renaissance, ready to build on past successes and spring forward into the new millennium.
Weinberger, a partner in The Hartland Group, a Burlington-based firm of community developers and consultants, said his administration is focused on making things happen, particularly in the area of the city between the overwhelmingly successful Church Street Marketplace and the still-evolving Lake Champlain Waterfront.
He started by enumerating the city's plusses, which he said the conference-attending architects would see for themselves as they took a variety of tours on the sun-splashed mid-October weekend.
“On your tours, you'll see historic houses on the hill. You'll see how urban renewal changed Burlington in a dramatic way. You'll see the Church Street Marketplace, one of only a handful of very successful pedestrian-only streets in the country. You'll see how our Waterfront Park reclaimed a great swath of the Lake Champlain waterfront and has become a great resource. The top of the hill, which includes our hospital and the University of Vermont, has seen major improvements as a result of great designs, great investments.”
But Weinberger also said much more remained to be done. “We're trying to bring in new investment,” he said. “Burlingtonians have an ambivalent view of development. Difficult memories persist (of bad development, during the era of urban renewal). Currently, we have a very complicated and uncertain regulatory environment. But now there's a new consensus that it's time to change the regulatory environment so that good, responsible real estate development can happen. My development background is an asset.”
Weinberger, 42, was valedictorian at Woodstock Union High School in 1988. He earned a Master of Urban Planning and Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. His architect father, Michael, was a longtime principal at Weinberger Associates in Woodstock. Miro Weinberger's company, Hartland Associates, has developed more than 200 units of sustainable housing in Vermont and New Hampshire, totaling over $40 million. Many have achieved LEED certification.
Although only in office six months, Weinberger seems to have a mandate that no other recent mayor has had. He became the first Democrat since before Bernie Sanders to win the mayoralty, with 58 per cent of the vote and a 21 per cent margin of victory. In October, the city council voted unanimously to move forward with new design for downtown redevelopment “that can inspire political consensus.”
The “Champlain Connector,” a hotly debated project for the past 50 years, has been redesigned from a “big superstructure, dumping into downtown” and the kind of design that “did great damage to other downtowns.” Now the city council has embraced a more modest street reconfiguration, “a new way of connecting Pine Street to Battery Street that everyone in the city can get behind, a project that enhances the city, that builds the city up, instead of tearing it down,” in the mayor's words.
Other opportunities exist to continue improvements on the waterfront, particularly in the area surrounding the long-abandoned “Moran Plant,” a former electricity generation station that has become an eyesore. Weinberger called this area “a jumbled mess,” featuring “potholed streets and a rundown skateboard park.” He envisions a “world class” skateboard park on the site, combined with a possible sailing center and other improvements.
“We want to bring new energy to downtown and to the waterfront,” Weinberger said.