OPINION – OPEN SPACE
This opinion appeared in the March 1969 issue of 05401. Some of the specifics are dated, but in general I would stand by the same opinion in 2018. Does that mean I was very far sighted then or not very evolved now ?
Louis Mannie Lionni
I wish I could elude the anxiety and sadness that sieze me on the occasion of virtually every pronouncement of public development policy. Why does each one inevitably appear to me to be misguided, arrogant, destructive, an important opportunity to create and enhance sustainable community frittered away for ignorant, inappropriate and venal purposes ? How do other architects stand it, why do they collaborate ?The Burlington Free Press (sic) of August 10th, 1995 presented a request for proposals, under the auspices of the Burlington Planning Department, for the re-development of the city owned properties at and adjoining 82 South Winooski Avenue. The redistribution of public assets to private profit ; exactly the reverse, in my opinion, of the entire point of the planning process. But not, in my experience, an exception. The power of the so-called development community seems not to have been significantly diminished by years of progressive administration. If anything it seems to have been enhanced and legitimated. And their singleminded pursuit of profit seems completely untempered, in spite of the rhetoric which sometimes accompanies their activities, by any other concern for the physical, social and cultural fabric of the city. Or, for that matter, for its æconomy. Certainly, with very few exceptions, it is hard to imagine them capable of the kinds of generosity and civic affection that motivated earlier generations of business people to give us the Arms property, the football field at Burlington High School, Battery Park, etc.So why can’t I just let it be, why haven’t years of disappointments cauterized me to these realities ? The fact is, it’s just too important. Here was a fortuitous opportuni-ty : an almost last chance, if there had been the will, to create some amenities in the center of the city for young people in particular, who have been so badly hurt and will continue to be so badly hurt by the cynical commercialization of the environment, and for all the other residents of Burlington as well. What the merchants want downtown is clear ; they have promoted their needs vigorously, aggressively, relentlessly : cars, cars, consumers, consumers. And more cars, and more consumers. And fewer costs. Simple !. What the residents of Burlington need downtown is something else, also simple and also significantly more complex : a restoration of green space, oases of quiet, structured and unstructured and perpetually accessible recreational opportunities close to our places of work.Some of the questions that would need to be asked in the context of an authentic Downtown Development process are obvious and imperative : how do we get stores that stock essential goods instead of stuffed ducks ? how do we create more – and more dignified – occupational opportunity ? where can we accomodate some significant increment to our housing stock, say three to five thousand affordable, accessible units with adequate solar access ? if Church Street is Downtown, what are North Winooski Avenue and North Street ? how do we eliminate cars ? how do we enhance pedestrian life ? where shall we put additional “green” space ? It is in that context, in the context of an authentic planning process, rather than through the mechanism of a basement sale, that we should be considering, as a community, the appropriate exploitation of the “central busines district”. At the site of the old police station we already own the land and some of the infrastructure – an important building of historic significance, services, communications hardware. And the land is bounded by several non profit community institutions – the YMCA and the First United Methodist Church – both of which could benefit from and contribute to what we need now : an intensive and intensively public process of planning, design and implementation. Paradoxically, the achievement of our merchants’ goals – higher density, more cars, more parking – would tend to preclude the satisfaction of the needs which they would generate : the need for the restoration of green space, more extensive oases of quiet, more structured and unstructured and perpetually accessible recreational opportunities adjacent to our places of work. It is the dialectical resolution of this apparent paradox that the Planning Commission should have been addressing as a prerequisite not only to the more global needs of Downtown but to the specific opportunity for an authentic, equitable, sustainable and broadly aeconomic evolution of the the two blocks that contain the 82/92 South Winooski properties as well as Burlington Memorial Auditorium, the Fletcher Free Library, the Fire Station, the Main Street Motel and the College Street Congregational Church, the YMCA, the Nickelodeon, the Municipal Parking Lot, the abandoned Police Headquarters and Detectives buildings, the First United Methodist Church and the Funeral “Home”. These two blocks constitute an essential part of the Civic center of Burlington. It has been apparent for some time that they are inappropriately zoned ; the impending re-write of the municipal development plan, the presence of a new comprehensive planner within the Planning Department and the need for closure on the 82/92 South Winooski Avenue properties all suggest that the time for rezoning is now. And a re-zoning of properties fronting on adjoining streets – the South side of Main and the east side of South Union in particular – should probably be considered as well. Consider, for example, the opportunity for expanding services to Memorial Auditorium offered by the building presently occupied by the Telephone company at the corner of Main and South Union, etc. And is zoning all we’re going to do ? or are we going to engage in an authentic planning process with a commitment to implementation ?All of this is easy to say, hard to do. It requires political courage, a willingness to look beyond the banal conventions of the livable tourist city, restraint, and luck. But it is absolutely imperative. The response to the RFP elicited the predictable responses, with Antonio Pomerleau’s (surprise !) heading the list.
Coming December 2018.