In Burlington church redevelopment, who will speak for the trees?

Published: Oct. 24, 2018 at 4:01 PM EDT
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The fate of an historic piece of landscape architecture in Burlington -- including more than 100 artfully placed trees -- hangs in the balance. The Immaculate Conception Parish is taking steps to sell the property and has no plans for the trees.

Rows and rows of trees. It may be easy to miss, but historians say the landscaping on the Immaculate Conception property in Burlington is more important than you may think.

"It's been here for so long now that I think people take it for granted," said Devin Coleman, the state architectural historian with the Division of Historic Preservation. He says the area was designed by Daniel Kiley, considered one of the foremost landscape architects of the 20th century. "He's a really big deal."

Kiley lived and worked out of Charlotte, Vermont and was responsible for landscaping including Saint Louis' Gateway Arch and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. Over the years many of his works have been altered or removed. The tree configuration is his only fully realized landscape design in Burlington.

"Kiley is known for using a geometric grid to lay out his landscapes to provide organization. And then within that grid, the trees and the grass and the sunlight coming through the canopy that activates the space," Coleman said.

The landscaping is close to 50-years-old. The trees were put in as the Immaculate Conception Parish was rebuilt after an arson in the 1970's.

"They represent a really important time in design and architecture that needs to be recognized and preserved," Coleman said.

Mayor Miro Weinberger admits it's a beautiful location. "There's certainly part of me that is sad to see change coming to that property. And at the same time, it's a part of our downtown that we want to see change," Weinberger said.

He says there's a lot of potential to develop it commercially and residentially, especially with the development of CityPlace next door and Church Street located just a block away.

Coleman hopes whoever ends up buying the property can build in what is now the parking lot of the church. "Once you stop and learn about it and you understand why it looks the way it does, you start to realize that it's important in our history," Coleman said.

History he wants preserved for the next generation of Vermonters.

This isn't the first time the fate of the landscaping here has been in question. The Chittenden County Transportation Authority took down six trees when it built a bus station in 2014. Coleman says they tried to minimize damage, helped rehabilitate some of the trees, and installed this educational signage to spread the word about Kiley's work. But the state was only involved with that project because it involved federal funding.

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