Friday, April 3, 2015

SOS - Burlington: From Secrets to Partnership

Remarks for Save Open Space Summit, Jan. 21, City Hall. 
Reimagine Burlington

   How did we get here? These days I often ask myself that kind of thing, looking back, thinking about the past. But 40 years ago, when I was new to Burlington, I thought mostly about the future, how it could be different and better.
   About that time I joined the faculty of Burlington College. It had another name then. Vermont Institute of Community Involvement, or just VICI. And one of the ideas of founder Steward LaCasce was to get away from "bricks and mortar" -- the big, expensive, campus-based model of higher education -- and, as much as possible, develop a community-based alternative, using existing resources and spaces around town. It was a practical form of involvement and interdependence.
   Eventually, the College did buy a building. But the idea of staying small and connected to the community persisted.
   At the time, the land we are here to save was owned by Vermont's Roman Catholic Diocese. The church purchased most of it from Burlington Free Press Publisher Henry Stacy in the 1870s. Before that it was farmland, and the city grew around it. A rolling meadow led to a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain, with a beach below, a forest of oak, red maple and pine at the southern edge, and a railroad tunnel under North Avenue. All in all, it is a special, irreplaceable piece of land.
   The church erected an imposing Victorian building, which housed orphans for a century. After World War II, the local diocese bought adjacent land and converted a cottage into a school for delinquents. After the St. Joseph Orphan Asylum and the Don Bosco School for Delinquent Boys closed, it became diocese headquarters and home for projects like Camp Holy Cross.
    So, the "school without walls" and the cloistered catholic campus near the lake. How did they get entangled? The answer begins with secrets, the first about what went on in the church -- and on that property.
   In the end dozens of former residents came forward, and revealed a dark, sordid history of physical and sexual abuse by nuns, priests and staff. Like other parts of the church, the diocese ultimately found itself under attack and in serious financial trouble. By May 2010, it had paid almost $20 million to settle 26 lawsuits. More were to follow. Selling the land was urgent to help cover up to $30 million in legal settlements for the abused.
    Developers expressed some interest, but disagreed about what the property was worth. There were also zoning restrictions, and some claimed the city was overvaluing the land. In any case, it went on the market in April 2010 for $12.5 million. The sale to BC for $10 million was announced on May 24, 2010, only a month later -- ten days after the diocese paid out $17. 65 million.  Based on about 200 housing units, a plan initially considered, a more reasonable price was probably $7 million or less.
   Why did the college pay that much? And what did its leaders expect? Like many decisions by private boards, it's mostly confidential, a shared secret. But we know the deal was promoted and brokered by Antonio Pomerleau, once known as the "godfather of Vermont shopping center development." Owner of Pomerleau Real Estate, a prominent, devoted Catholic who wanted to help the church, and a powerful, persuasive developer who for years chaired the Burlington Police Commission.
    In the early 1980s Pomerleau became an obvious target for Bernie Sanders, a capitalist mogul who wanted to rebuild the waterfront and controlled the Police Department. His $30 million waterfront redevelopment plan was derailed after Sanders' election as mayor. But the relationship changed. By the time College President Jane Sanders announced the purchase, Pomerleau was considered a family friend. In then-President Sanders' words, Pomerleau was the only man who could have made it happen. Someone to trust, who understood relationships. But it didn't hurt that he loaned the school $500,000 to close the deal. Yves Bradley, who subsequently became chair of the College's Board of Trustee, handled the 2010 transaction details for Pomerleau Real Estate.
   According to local sources, the school's leaders believed that, with connected friends like Sanders and Pomerleau, plus a Treasurer like Jonathan Leopold, handling the $10 million debt and $3 million for renovations was a reasonable expectation for a school with 200 students and revenues around $4 million a year. Big donors would come -- but they didn't. The Board also embraced another notion: that enrollment could double in five years, a goal well beyond the national average. It didn't.
    In retrospect, it sounds like magical thinking. Or just bad judgement. But somehow it made sense -- at least until September 2011, when Jane Sanders was forced to resign, mainly for not raising enough money. So began a three-year, silent slide toward insolvency.
    Exactly how many students attend BC today? Just how bad are its finances, and how did that happen? Why did one president resign suddenly in the parking lot? We don't know for sure. We also don't know whether the school will continue to exist as an independent college a year from now. 
    We could know more. We should. But it's a political hot potato. And the mayor has made it known that, although he's open to preserving a few "key attributes" for public use -- some forest, a garden, a path to the shore and Texaco beach -- he won't risk city funds or political capital. Instead, he's likely to wait until the deal is closed, then try to negotiate concessions during the zoning and permitting process. 
Many people in a position to make things happen, one way or another, appear to be on board with developer Eric Farrell's plan and the mayor's free market stance. But they are reluctant to say much.
    I'll conclude with a question and a vision. This land has seen more than enough secrets, loss and pain. Can't we find a better approach, a more open path? Can't we move from secrecy to partnership, a partnership in the public interest -- between conservation groups, local colleges, government and private capital -- brokered by engaged officials, combining sufficient housing with a modest campus, compatible projects, and as much open space as possible. With persistence, courage and political will, it can happen. 
    I still believe the future can be different -- and better. And that's why I think we're here.
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