A Neighborhood Lost: Part 2 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

A Neighborhood Lost: Part 2

Burlington, Vermont - May 18, 2006

Forty years ago this week, the city of Burlington launched Vermont's first large redevelopment project under the federal Urban Renewal program. The city demolished an entire neighborhood to make way for a large part of what is now downtown Burlington.

On the corner of Cherry and Battery streets, the latest downtown construction project is going up. It will be a 127-room Courtyard hotel, a project that includes condominiums and apartments. What makes it unique is that this is the very last parcel of the original 27-acre Urban Renewal district to be developed.

In order to knock down the old neighborhood in 1966, Urban Renewal required the use of eminent domain-- the taking of private property. At the time officials believed-- and still believe today-- that this was for the betterment of the community. But it disrupted the lives of the people who lost their homes, including John Antonicci who moved his barbershop to the north end.

"I guess people went to the four winds, really," Antonicci recalled. "Most of 'em bought their own homes. They moved out into the suburbs, some came out here, some went to the South end. Some went into apartments." For those who needed apartments, the city embarked on several ambitious public housing projects, including Northgate, Franklin Square and Riverside.

Forty years later, some say Urban Renewal was not the best policy, given the widespread demolition and dislocation. Community & Economic Development Director Michael Monte told Channel 3, "You know, frankly it was a mistake, broadly, as a policy."

Monte reflects the view of most urban planners, that 1960s style Urban Renewal would not be used today as a development strategy. "We would not come close to bulldozing an entire neighborhood," he said.

In fact, Burlington has not used the power of eminent domain since Urban Renewal, although, like other municipalities, it has the power to condemn properties. The city has used the threat of eminent domain to obtain properties for public projects like the long-delayed Southern Connector. Nowadays, Vermont officials consider the taking of private property for strictly private development a policy of the past. It's been replaced by a much more selective approach.

Sam Matthews of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. said, "The sensibilities in Vermont are strongly directed toward restoration and toward preservation."

Take for example the North Street Revitalization project, which was dedicated last fall. The street was renovated and improved, including buried utility lines. The neighborhood itself was left intact.

And yet, without urban renewal, would Burlington have the same economic activity, jobs and tax base that it has today? Frank Cain, who was Mayor from 1965-1971, said without it, the city's downtown might have suffered. "You wouldn't have the pedestrian Church Street, I'm sure," he said, in reference to the Church Street Marketplace outdoor mall, a project dating from 1980 that is widely credited with saving downtown from the fate of urban decay that afflicted many cities. "You wouldn't have the connection to the waterfront that you've got now," he added.

And you wouldn't have the same tax base. Today, just two of the larger properties in the Urban Renewal district, the Town Center Mall and the Chittenden Bank building, pay $200,000 a year in property taxes between them. In 1964, the yet-to-be torn down properties in the entire Urban Renewal district paid only $41,000 in taxes. Even taking inflation into account, today's tax base is far higher.

Monte said that no one can know what would have happened without urban renewal, except that Burlington likely would be a very different place today.

"The real question is, what would have happened if the neighborhood stayed as it was, and what could have been created out of that," Monte said. "How much value that would have had. And that's a harder question."

Another question-- now that the last available parcel in the urban renewal area is being developed forty years later-- was all of this worth it?

Matthews said, "Again, the methodology might not have been the best. But this last piece, the hotel, is, I believe, going to ensure a sustainability to this community. Could it have been done better? Yeah. Has it been effective? It would appear so."

The hotel is expected to open in September, at which point the final chapter in the story of Burlington Urban Renewal will have been written.

Our thanks to Patrick Farrington for his assistance, particularly, a collection of photographs that he compiled from several sources, including UVM Special Collections and property appraisals at the time of the acquisitors under Urban Renewal. Farrington produced a 30-minute documentary on Burlington Urban Renewal. To purchase a DVD copy of "The Champlain Street Urban Renewal Project," a link is available on our web site, www.wcax.com. Click on Infocenter.

Andy Potter - Channel 3 News

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