Tuesday, August 4, 2015

PlanBTV: Going for Competitive Advantage

One rendering shows a new waterfront hotel.

At first the master plan for Burlington’s urban core sounds and looks like a new airport designation – planBTV. The logo-style name, like other decisions made since the project began in early 2011, point to an emphasis on image and messaging.

Dozens of beautifully rendered diagrams, illustrations and charts combine to create a seductive vision of Vermont’s largest city in the not-too-distant future. An online version released in 2012 allowed for comments on almost every paragraph. This and much of the process was designed and directed by a consulting firm, Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative, with funding from HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.

The result is a long-term blueprint for downtown Burlington and the waterfront that attempts  to balance growing concerns about sustainability with continued growth and pressing Burlington’s competitive edge. Since its development, it has become the basis for a variety of ordinance and zoning changes to implement the overall vision and smooth the path for projects that survive public scrutiny.

On page 84 of the print version, the desire to keep Burlington a vital and desirable place to live is linked to competition for “market share” with surrounding communities and the suburbs.

“For years the City has struggled to agree on how to move forward with the development of the waterfront and the core has struggled to match the vitality seen on Church Street,” it explains. “While the city is a desirable place to live, a lack of high quality affordable housing limits the number of people who can find housing downtown. This deficiency of downtown housing also potentially deters businesses who fear they cannot find a needed employee base. Traffic, challenges with parking, and shortfalls in the quality of the public realm further deter potential residents and visits. Complex and unpredictable regulatory framework also suppress the potential for investment by the private sector.”

The plan itself, presented without the traditional references to goals, objectives, and benchmarks, is more like a PowerPoint presentation, full of intriguing statistics and perceptions but also a series of frequently reinforced themes and arguments. In the 114-page magazine version, most specific recommendations do not emerge until page 90. The rest of the elaborately-designed publication covers local history, how the plan was developed, a set of “values we celebrate,” and nine “themes” that combine to create the rationale for various proposals.

Making the case for change

The decision to present the proposed master plan in print as a colorful, high-end magazine was supposed to “make this document as accessible as possible to the public.” A note on page three said you could order a print edition or download it from the city’s website.

Study area shown by blue line.
An initial hundred copies of the magazine version were printed at a cost of $1,800. and a second edition was made available after the public comments period. Officials and members of the city council received copies.  But only a limited number were available at the Planning and Zoning office, with a cover sticker indicating that they could be borrowed on a three-day loan basis. Some pages and recommended ordinance changes in the print edition were not featured on the website, but the entire magazine was available in PDF form.

On Page 5 of the magazine Comprehensive Planners Sandrine Thibault encouraged the plan’s adoption with the argument that it “represents a social contract bringing citizens together around common goals for their future.” This assertion is followed by an orientation section under the headline “How to love the plan.” Step one, it suggests, is to support it “even if you don’t like all the ideas.” 

The basic idea: have residents focus on the big picture rather than controversial details like a new waterfront hotel or more parking structures, and ultimately to consider whether the overall plan basically takes the city in the right direction. Readers were also encouraged to become part of the planning team and to recognize that some ideas likely to “bring about transformative change” could take years to implement.

The magazine’s review section features historical photos, a selected timeline of past planning milestones, a description of the process and photo spreads that show participants huddled around charts and maps. Little of this made it to the online version.

A highlight of the public process was a series of community meetings. These design “charettes” -- a chic planning term from the French words for cart or chariot -- were attended by about 500 people who considered needs and looked over various proposals.

“Feeding off this buzz of activity, the team entered production mode, synthesizing ideas, collaborating over design challenges, preparing renderings, compiling precedent images, and drawing up the final master plan,” the text explains.

Phase 1 also featured a study of local demographics, transportation, parking, housing and economics. Among the economic “insights” that emerged was that downtown Burlington, which currently has nearly one million square feet of retail space, could accommodate up to 200,000 more. Another is the assertion that French Canadians account for only 3 percent of downtown shoppers. Some officials have questioned this. The problem is that no documentation is provided for much of the data presented in the plan, and some statistics are based on short-term or limited samples.

A section on housing states that single-person households account for 55 percent of the total in the downtown and waterfront area, while 88 percent are renters, 63 percent are under 35 year old, and the average rental price is $1,250.

“Wow,” the plan comments – but not about the cost of housing. “Only 12 percent of homes in Burlington’s downtown and waterfront area are owner occupied. Though not always the case, rental properties are often times unkempt – especially when there is a high concentration of transient residents such as students – compared to homeowners who put down roots and make a long-term investment in their home and neighborhood,” it states.

On transportation, the statistical bottom line is that 74 percent of Burlingtonians drive to work regularly, but the majority “would like to be less auto dependent” and 20 percent already walk to work. A factoid under the heading “Myth Busting” asserts that the city actually does not have a shortage of parking spaces. At peak times, it notes, 35 percent of the spaces are empty. However, a mitigating factor is that a third of the area’s parking is private.

Although the impact of the proposed Champlain Parkway is not discussed – in part because it extends beyond the downtown area – four high-relief aerial maps show the potential for more park and civic space beyond the core, opportunities “to extend the street grid” in the south end, and “a lack of buildings to enclose and activate the park space” on the waterfront. In other words, more development is needed to attract additional visitors.

The fourth map in this section shows “underutilized sites.” The plan concludes that downtown could handled an additional 18.2 million square feet of mixed-use development and more than 500 residential units.

Lists and themes

Some sections are difficult of categorize, even for the plan’s editors. In the magazine’s table of contents one section is titled, “Some Commentary.” However, the title on the page referenced is actually “Timeless Principles” while the content covers what has worked in other communities. The list includes walkability, destination, distance, design, connectivity, density, scale, diversity and mixed-use.

“The creative class, entrepreneurs, and baby boomers are moving into cities, sacrificing privacy, personal space, and their automobiles, in exchange for convenience, entertainment and social interaction,” the plan offers. In the sub-section on distance, the dynamic is quantified this way: the average pedestrian will walk 1320 feet, or five minutes, to reach a destination but Burlingtonians will go a bit farther.

Under mixed-use, planBTV recommends that neighborhoods combine commercial, residential, recreational and civic uses. “This mix of uses is optimized when commercial establishments have residential dwelling units above to help promote active streets,” it explains.

Another section defines a set of Burlington values, based on 250 responses to a survey conducted from October 2011 to January 2012. Asked their impressions of downtown and the waterfront, the word people apparently used most often was” vibrant.” They were also asked about their level of satisfaction with specific features of the area. The highest scores went to shopping and dining downtown, how the Marketplace is maintained, amenities for pedestrians and cyclists, and the scale of buildings.

Asked to rank the five most important subjects that should be addressed by the plan those who responded listed promotion of a local economy sustained by a diverse mixture of business at the top.  Other popular choices were strengthening the city’s role as an economic center, an integrated transportation system, a wide range of housing options, and new urban development.

Based on the various surveys and sources, the planners generated another list – “values we celebrate.” This one includes respect and tolerance, diversity, access, localism, creativity, ability to walk and bike, social interaction and civic engagement, a sense of place, conserving energy, self-sufficiency, and life-long learning.  

By page 44, planBTV the magazine has not quite reached the point of presenting specific proposals. Instead, a final background section describes seven “placed-based themes” that supposedly underlie the choices, goals and objectives “embedded in the hearts and minds of the citizens.” These themes include a vibrant economy, housing and transportation choice, active and healthy living, environmental and cultural stewardship, a sense of place, and creativity and innovation.

Implementing the vision

PlanBTV eventually gets around to specifics, beginning with the need to expand the retail market share in competition with the suburbs. A major proposal in this area is expansion of the current four-block business improvement district (BID) downtown, currently known as the Church Street Marketplace.

In the future the BID’s role could include unified management of public infrastructure, advocating for redevelopment incentives, retail recruitment services handled by a specialist, and creation of a waterfront enhancement and redevelopment program. Setting up a downtown development revolving fund – a potential source of loans for promising projects – is mentioned as “a means to leverage private investment” and make sure that design and material standards are met.

Subsequent sections cover the need to reduce barriers to housing development and open up more units downtown. One recommendation is to improve vacant upper floors along Church Street for use as student housing. Another is to develop an under-utilized parcel at the corner of Main and South Winooski, ironically known as the Superblock, to create a high density project that attracts “several demographic groups interested in urban living who may want an alternative to fatigued single-family homes.”

Absent from the website is a related section in the magazine listing the specific zoning changes that will be needed. They include dropping the 50 percent limit on residential use in downtown projects, eliminating off-street parking requirements, simplifying the public approvals process, increasing the threshold that triggers the need for inclusionary units, and revising the size limits to allow for smaller units.

Another section deals with the innovative potential of Burlington’s creative class, described as “anyone willing to think like an artist” or who is striving to “create a window to view the world in an altogether different way.” This element of the plan is a departure from the past, explicitly acknowledging that arts and culture have become key factors in Burlington’s identity and economy that need to be nurtured.

Recommendations for how to do that include combined public and private funding for non-for-profit enterprises, a commitment to development that “actively enables” creative endeavors, and "incentivizing" the use of upper story properties. 

Among the most detailed sections in planBTV are those dealing with streets, transportation, pedestrians, cycling, and parking. “Now people want to be in urban areas so they can choose to not use a car,” the plan asserts. The proposals for these areas are numerous and ambitious, including a downtown transit mall; a passenger train station that will be part of a new waterfront civic square; and enhancing Burlington’s reputation as a bike-friendly destination through functional parking, end-of-trip facilities, secure storage, bike sharing, and a variety of bikeway types.  

The section titled “Park It! Burlington” provides a granular look at demand, the rationale to change some parking requirements, a tiered time limit approach, use of smart technology,  and various pricing proposals. “We already know that there is a surplus of parking that should be filled before new parking infrastructure is constructed,” the publication says in a sub-section on supply. “Building additional parking facilities will be the last step for Burlington to grow in a smart and efficient way.”

Reimagining the waterfront

Plan BTV sees the Waterfront’s potential “to be a year-round activity center that attracts both city residents and visitors.” Future possibilities include an ice skating facility, even a sled run down Depot Street when the area is “less than ideal” for typical warn weather options. Reinforcing previous municipal plans it also foresees the physical linking of the waterfront area with downtown at several points. 

The text often mentions minimizing the use of automobiles. But in the section on parking innovations it also recommends eliminating parking requirements for future development. “Each new development can determine exactly how much parking is needed without wasting land and resources on parking spaces that will not be utilized,” it argues. 

Thirty pages later, among the many proposals in a key section under the jaunty title, “Around the Burlington Plan,” it discusses two possible new parking structures on the waterfront. The idea is to keep most of the additional parking hidden from view, preferably in buildings with other retail, housing or office uses.

One possibility is below Battery Street, potentially with a connection to Pearl Street via elevator, plus a green roof with a commanding waterfront view. Another option is below the southern end of Lake Street, with access to College or Main.  Building them “would allow nearby surface parking lots to be redeveloped into civic spaces and mixed-used buildings to further activate the waterfront,” the plan says.

The new civic Pavilion surrounded by a plaza is expected
to become a "defining icon" on the waterfront
The most informative sections come in the final 25 pages, when specific elements of the plan are physically pinpointed and described.  At the north end of the waterfront, for example, it calls for a redesign of Overlook Park; stairs or even a mechanical conveyance down the escarpment; a new multi-purpose building at the mid-point of Waterfront Park, creating an entrance to the event area where access can be controlled; a “creativity village” of new and existing buildings along Lake Street; a seasonal skating rink; and a large new civic pavilion that could become the site for future crafts and farmers markets, indoor concerts, and exhibits.

Moving south, the plan describes an “active mixed-use area” with retail space, restaurants and a new inn or hotel on land owned by the Pecor family. In planning speak, this is called “adaptive reuse and infill,” an opportunity for development that extends the four-season tourism concept, with uses that reinforce “a vibrant pedestrian environment.”  To accomplish this, the city’s ferry terminal would be moved south to make room for new projects.

Balancing priorities

In a letter to Burlingtonians, Comprehensive Planner Thibault introduces the “limited edition” magazine version of planBTV with a suggestion that it allows residents to “proactively prepare” for inevitable growth.

In June 2012 Mayor Miro Weinberger said that he sees the process underway as the city’s best chance to reach “a meaningful consensus” about what Burlington’s downtown and waterfront should look like.  The approach could work, he told VTDigger, because it is visual and combines talented designers with modern technology.

However, the plan is as much a persuasive prospectus as a planning document. In addition, it does not incorporate some other relevant planning that is also underway, notably the update of Burlington’s Climate Action Plan that will become part of a revised Municipal Development Plan. Future city projects and programs affecting transportation and development will have to conform to the standards in the plan. That includes zoning, subdivision regulation, impact fees and capital improvements.

The Climate Action Plan concludes that Burlington's greenhouse gas emissions increased 7 percent from 2007 to 2010, despite a goal to reduce emissions 20 percent by 2020. Among the approaches mentioned in the plan offering the greatest potential for carbon reductions and cost savings are reducing the number of miles driven by residents by combining trips, telecommuting, carpooling and using alternatives to the automobile; and requiring any new commercial construction to follow performance guidelines that reduce energy use by at least 20 percent. There is no mention of such considerations in planBTV.

The plan includes many relevant suggestions. But its primary focus is economic. As the statement on long-term vision explains, planBTV seeks” to have a positive impact on the economy, business climate, tax base, and the sustainability of the City in to the future.” Whether the proposed plan’s ambitious vision for how to enhance and protect Burlington’s current marketing advantages is consistent with emerging environmental realities, as well as prevailing local attitudes about housing, traffic and the use of remaining land along the waterfront, remains to be seen.

Article first published in 2012 by VTDigger. To request a digital download or a print copy go to www.burlingtonvt.gov/planbtv
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