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A Neighborhood Lost: Part 1 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

A Neighborhood Lost: Part 1

Burlington, Vermont - May 17, 2006

Wednesday, May 17, 2006 marked an anniversary that some older Burlington residents will never forget. It was this day 40 years ago that brought the beginning of Urban Renewal. The first of scores of homes and businesses were knocked down to make way for new commercial development. Whole streets disappeared in the process, including several blocks of South Champlain Street.

Before Urban Renewal, all of the streets ran straight through.157 families lived in the 27-acre urban renewal district, including John Antonicci, a barber who had to move but still runs the business his father started in the old neighborhood.

"We had an excellent business there and had no reason to leave." Antonicci told Channel 3. "I'd probably still be there today -- if it hadn't been for Urban Renewal."

Antonicci moved the barbershop out to the north end shortly before the demolition began. His family home at 81 South Champlain street would be bulldozed, just like the rest of the Urban Renewal area, roughly bounded by Battery, College, Pine and Pearl streets.

A bond issue of $790,000, matched by a $2.4 million federal grant, had cleared by a lopsided margin in March, 1963. That was a lot of money back then, but Urban Renewal had political support citywide-- if not in the neighborhood affected by it. To qualify for the federal money, the area had to be declared blighted. Some of it was.

Frank Cain, who was Burlington Mayor between 1965-1971, recalled, "I never considered it a slum, but there were some large pockets of decay down in there that weren't going to get better by themselves."

Cain and a team of planners realized that the city had to find a way to encourage economic growth. There was no room to expand the central business district, and little money for commercial development. "We were still in a post-war era," he said. "So as far as business was concerned, Burlington wasn't the affluent place that it is now, by any means."

Like other cities around the country, Burlington used Urban Renewal to buy out property owners under eminent domain. Some fought the taking of their homes in court-- and ultimately lost. Monica Farrington's grandmother owned a sprawling twenty-room house on South Champlain street. She got only $13,000 for it. Farrington says other homes and land typically went for six or seven-thousand. She said the old neighborhood was worth saving because it had what urban planners today consider important, affordable housing, businesses within walking distance and diversity.

"There were Italians, Lebanese, French, Yankees. I imagine that's an English background," she laughed, "just some of everybody. It was a beautiful melting pot-- and it's gone."

By June of 1968, the neighborhood had been leveled, the demolition complete. Some of it was done by unofficial means. Cain said, "If you're talking about after acquisition of those properties, it was a playground for arsonists. And it was a terribly dangerous thing."

Gradually, Urban Renewal began to happen. First came a new district courthouse, and then the mall known then as Burlington Square, and the Chittenden Bank building. Still, a sizable portion of the old neighborhood remained undeveloped through the 1970s and into the 1980s. The original futuristic plans that included a superhighway on the waterfront would not happen.

Antonicci said with a twist of irony, "We didn't know, they didn't know what it was going to be. They were just cleaning out a slum in their idea, I guess."

Urban Renewal changed Burlington forever. Some would say for the worse, others for the better. But it would take 40 years to rebuild the entire area. There were two more phases of Urban Renewal on the drawing board that would have taken two more neighborhoods, just east and north of downtown. But by then it was generally realized that rebuilding what had already been knocked down would take much longer than expected.

As painful as it was for the old Champlain street neighborhood, Urban Renewal literally paved the way for the vibrant downtown that Burlington has today.

Thursday on the Channel 3 News at 6, we'll look at eminent domain, the highly-charged policy of taking privately owned land for development projects, and its impact on Burlington's urban renewal.

Andy Potter - Channel 3 News

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