On November 8th, Burlington voters will weigh in on zoning changes and public TIF investments in support of a mall revitalization project at the Burlington Town Center. We’re three members of the Burlington City Council who strongly support mixed-use development, growth in our local housing stock, efforts to increase housing affordability and the revitalization of our out-of-date downtown mall. We don’t support the size and massing in the proposed zoning, or a process that failed to explore alternatives more in line with the current upper height limits in our downtown.
When we vote on Burlington ballot item #3, we are voting on a zoning overlay district, not a mall project. Zoning, as established through community engagement and codified in the Downtown and Waterfront Master Plan, sets the terms for development. In this sense, the needs of one particular developer or project should not drive zoning policy. This, however, is exactly what happened with the zoning overlay district we’ll vote on this November 8th.
The zoning change process began with a Pre-Development Agreement (PDA) in May between the developer and the City. Current zoning allows developers to go to 65 ft. in height by right with 20% of units in those buildings set aside as affordable. Should a developer want to go beyond that current 65 ft. limit, they can go up to 105 ft. by including more public benefits like additional affordable housing. The PDA asked the Council to commit to changing these current zoning requirements to allow for buildings up to 160 ft and to allow those buildings to reach that height without additional affordable housing requirements.
Over the course of the summer, the Planning Commission and, subsequently, the Council debated an overlay district for the area surrounding the Burlington Town Center. That district included several adjacent properties: Macy’s, the College St. and Lakeview parking garages, and Peoples’ United Bank. Under the proposal, all properties within that overlay would be able to reach 160 ft. in height with an additional 15 ft. allowed for rooftop mechanicals and up to 10% in additional height at the discretion of the Planning and Zoning Director. At the same time, the change removed the bonus concept from our ordinance, meaning that a developer could go up to 160 ft. by right without including other community benefits like more affordable housing. These changes were the issues around which much of the debate revolved.
That debate, however, wasn’t much of a debate. Time and time again, we were told we could not consider changes that were not consistent with the Burlington Town Center PDA. In essence, that agreement was driving and limiting the terms of debate around the larger district. Because of this dynamic, the Planning Commission and Ordinance Committee did not make any substantive changes to the overlay as is typical in the zoning change process. Instead, they merely identified issues around which disagreement existed, leaving those for the full Council to resolve.
Undeterred by the resistance to change at earlier stages, we offered compromise amendments to the zoning overlay when it came to the full Council for final approval. An amendment to bring the height down to 130 ft. was voted down. An amendment to establish a hard cap on height at 160 ft. was voted down. An amendment increasing affordable housing requirements from 20% to 25% at upper height limits was voted down. Compromise that reflected public input and concerns, it seemed, was wishful thinking. Ultimately, the zoning change was passed by the full Council with only minor technical changes by a vote of 8-3 with the three of us voting against.
A vote against the proposed zoning is sometimes described as a vote against mall revitalization, affordable housing, progress, change, growth, the environment and even diversity and equity. This false dichotomy is discouraging to witness at the local level, as our national political discourse gets more and more polarized. Zoning can and should be a thoughtful process where we consider options, defining and upholding community values about how we grow our city. We believe we failed to do that in the context of the proposed zoning changes.
Now, the fate of the overlay district lies with Burlington voters. As you think about your vote on Question #3, we hope that you understand that you are not voting for a mall project, but a zoning overlay that extends beyond the boundaries of the mall that will dramatically change our downtown for generations to come. We’re voting no because the zoning overlay emerged from a process void of compromise or consideration of alternatives, includes increases in height that will result in buildings out of scale with the rest of downtown, and will lower the percentage of affordable housing that developers are required to build.
Max Tracy, Ward 2 City Councilor
Selene Colburn, East District City Councilor
Sharon Bushor, Ward 1 City Councilor