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Old Macy’s building seen as key to Burlington’s future... again

Published: Nov. 27, 2020 at 3:24 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The abandoned Macy’s department store in Burlington will get a second chance to be a savior for the community.

It was 21 years ago this week the building opened to shoppers, seen then as a critical piece of the city’s economic future.

Now, it is playing a key role in the city’s educational future as it is transformed into a temporary high school.

The Burlington Square Mall opened in 1976, followed a few years later by the transformation of Church Street into a pedestrian mall. Those projects brought a modern shopping experience to the Queen City and were part of a greater transformation of the downtown under the urban renewal policies of the time.

But one big piece of the urban renewal zone was left undeveloped-- a swath of land extending down Cherry Street. The city worked for years to develop the property, with a primary goal of attracting an anchor retailer to augment the Burlington Square Mall.

Finally, after more than two decades, the void was filled with the construction of a Filene’s department store on the site, which opened to hopeful shoppers in 1999.

“Gosh, they had hardly anything left down here. Sears and Penney’s left a long time ago, and of course, with Woolworth’s gone, I think it’s terrible. I think it’ll be a great thing for the people,” a shopper told WCAX News in November 1999.

In 2006, Filene’s was bought out by Macy’s, but no matter the name on the building, the store never thrived as once hoped. It was a victim of its distance from crowds on Church Street, its dependence on the under-trafficked mall and changing times, as consumers found less appeal in large department stores.

After the demolition of the mall in 2017 to make way for the proposed CityPlace development, Macy’s was further disconnected from the city’s retail core. Early in 2018, the Macy’s company announced the Burlington location would close. Soon after, the building was bought by the CityPlace developers with plans for eventual demolition.

CityPlace has not been built and the area where the mall was is now known sarcastically as “the pit.”

But the delays for CityPlace have proven fortuitous for the Burlington school district, which found itself in desperate need of a space for nearly 1,000 high schoolers.

“We really want to get students back in person but we also need to do it responsibly,” Burlington School Superintendent Tom Flanagan said in September.

After weeks of searching and negotiations, the school board agreed last week to a 3.5-year lease of the Macy’s building, while the district awaits a clear path forward for eliminating the PCB threat that forced the closure of Burlington High School.

It’s not an ideal learning space and will cost taxpayers at least an extra $10 million. But board members hope the community will embrace the new location.

“I’m excited about the potential for a dynamic downtown high school that’s connected to the city in the way that none of our schools are connected to the city right now,” said Stephen Carey of the Burlington School Board.

If soil tests at the site come back clean, the school district will move forward with renovations to transform the old department store, hoping to have high school students learning in-person there by the end of February.

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