Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Immigration Fight at the AZ Corral

April 23, 2010

Arizona is in the grip of an anti-immigrant fever. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose popularity was built on his tough enforcement tactics and willingness to defy the federal government, is on the edge of a run for governor. But even if he doesn’t, the state has a controversial new law that requires police to determine the status of anyone if there is a "reasonable suspicion” they are in the US illegally – and arrest them if documents can’t be produced. Hiring day laborers off the street has also become a crime.

Supporters see the law as an anti-crime measure and part of a larger campaign to secure the border. Opponents call it racial profiling and claim it is unconstitutional.

Gov. Jan Brewer, the Republican who replaced Janet Napolitano when she became Obama’s Homeland Security chief, waited as long as possible before taking a position on SB 1070. Caught between a conservative primary challenge and the prospect of her state becoming the target of a Latino-led boycott, her first step was to issue a border security plan of her own. It includes increased surveillance, redirecting stimulus money to local law enforcement, and a request to President Obama for more National Guard border support.

Then, on April 23, as large crowds protested in Phoenix and Tuscon, Brewer signed the bill. Arguing that she is responding to a crisis, she linked her decision to the drug war.

Latino members of Congress had urged Gov. Jan Brewer to veto. "When you institutionalize a law like this one, you are targeting and discriminating at a wholesale level against a group of people," Rep. Raul Grijalva said. More than 50,000 people signed petitions opposing the law, about 2,500 students from high schools across Phoenix walked out of school and marched to the Capitol, and nine college students were arrested during protests for chaining themselves to the Capitol building doors to pressure the governor.

Interim County Attorney Rick Romley called it an unfunded mandate that is “tearing the community apart” and pledges that, despite the law’s thrust, he will focus on organized crime syndicates engaged in human smuggling. Obama says it is “misguided.” But Arpaio accuses opponents of just not wanting to enforce immigration laws, and state polls reveal strong public support.

Tourism and business leaders worry that the law will discourage visitors and economic development, comparing it to what happened when another Arizona governor rescinded recognition of Martin Luther King Day as a holiday in 1987. At least $300 million in income was lost and the NFL pulled the Super Bowl from Phoenix. Eventually, voters approved the state holiday.

Despite the social and economic dangers, Arizona’s two US Senators, Jon Kyl and John McCain, don’t just support the move. They’ve unveiled their own 10-point plan, including 3,000 National Guardsmen to be deployed to the state's border, 24/7 monitoring by unmanned aerial vehicles, permanent addition of 3,000 Custom and Border Protection agents, and completion of 700 miles of fencing.

The Arizona legislation "is exactly why the federal government must act on immigration reform," argues state Democratic leader Jorge Luis Garcia. "We cannot have states creating a jigsaw puzzle of immigration laws. This bill opens the doors to racial profiling with the provision that allows an officer to ask for citizenship papers from someone who only looks illegal."

When Napolitano was governor, she vetoed similar bills. She was relatively tough on immigration, especially on businesses who hired undocumented people, imposing what she called a "business death penalty" – basically taking away licenses – from those violating an employer sanctions law twice. However, she opposed punishing immigrants who were already here and didn’t think much of a border fence. "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder," she said.

Things have changed since she left. Whether or not the 77-year-old Arpaio runs for governor and wins the GOP primary (or the general election), immigration will remain front and center in state politics for the foreseeable future, potentially accelerating and certainly influencing the national debate over reform. The Arizona law also plays into the “state’s rights” thrust of the current anti-federal government surge.

Dangerous Tactics

Anti-immigrant sentiment is a persistent theme in US politics. In 1996, for example, when then-California Gov. Pete Wilson announced that undocumented pregnant women should be denied prenatal care, his underlying message was clear and brutal: If you’re “illegal,” get out of our country!

Wilson’s statement came at another dangerous time, one marked by resurgent racism, increased police brutality, vigilante violence, and rationalization of virtually any attack. In other words, we’ve been here before.

In the early 1980s, low intensity conflict (LIC) theorists constructed a Los Angeles insurrection scenario requiring a military response and sealing the nearby border. A decade later, the Border Patrol played a key role in the L.A. riots of 1992, deployed in Latino communities and arresting more than 1,000 people. Afterward, the INS began work with the Pentagon’s Center for Low-Intensity Conflict, and the line between civilian and military operations was largely erased.

Throughout the 1990s, Human Rights Watch accused the US Border Patrol of routinely abusing people, citing a pattern of beatings, shootings, rapes, and deaths. In response, INS detainees in a private jail rioted in June 1995 after being tortured by guards. After 9/11, the federal government considered placing US soldiers along the Mexican border.

But efforts to curtail immigration through tighter security have done little but redirect the flow into the most desolate areas of the border, increasing the mortality rate of those crossing. Between 1998 and 2004, at least 1,900 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border. In recent years, Arizona has become the main entry point for undocumented immigrants into the US. An estimated 460,000 live in the state, but the total has dropped by at least 100,000, or 18 percent, since 2008.

In the last five years, around 200 people have died annually along the Arizona border in wilderness areas, according to medical examiner data compiled by Coalicion de Derechos Humanos. On the other hand, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu charges that “numerous” officers have been killed by illegal immigrants, and that the violence has reached “epidemic proportions.” Although that’s true, the main spikes in crime have been in home invasions and kidnapping, both of which are linked to the drug war and organized crime based in Mexico.

Anti-immigrant activists deny charges of racism. But the facts tell a different story. Almost unlimited numbers of immigrants from mostly white, European countries are allowed into the US, while Latin Americans and Africans rarely even get tourist visas. And although sweatshops that employ undocumented workers are condemned, they aren’t often shut down, but merely raided, resulting in deportations. The owners may be fined, but they still come out ahead. After all, deported workers can’t collect back wages.

The Arizona law makes police go after anyone whose look or dress is “suspicious,” yet does little to toughen the employer sanctions legislation passed in 2007. That gave authorities the power to suspend or revoke the business licenses of employers caught knowingly hiring illegal workers and required all businesses to use E-Verify to check the work eligibility of new employees. Since then, only two cases have been settled in which the employers admitted guilty. All the new law says is that they must maintain those E-Verify records.

Border Wars

More than 150 years ago, at the end of a two-year war between Mexico and the US, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. Many Latinos still feel that the treaty, accepted under pressure by a corrupt dictator, was an act of theft violating international law. Mexico surrendered half its territory — now the Southwestern United States — and most of the Mexicans who stayed in the ceded region ultimately lost their land.

In a sense, that war never ended. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, US officials, working closely with white settlers and elites, used often-violent means to subdue Mexicans in the region.

Once the region was “pacified,” border enforcement became a tool to regulate the flow of labor into the US. With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, the Border Patrol emerged as gatekeeper of a “revolving door,” sometimes processing immigrant labor, sometimes cracking down. The Bracero Program, which brought in Mexican agricultural laborers, was followed (and overlapped by) Operation Wetback, an INS-run military offensive against immigrant workers.

The border is still a battlefield. During recent decades, government strategies for combating undocumented immigration and drug trafficking have re-militarized the region.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) meshed neatly with more obvious aspects of low-intensity conflict doctrine. The definition of immigration and drug trafficking as “national security” issues has brought state-of-the-art military approaches into domestic affairs. But just as the projection of a “communist menace” was a smokescreen for post-war expansionism, a “Brown wave,” the “Drug War,” and terrorism have been used as pretexts for military-industrial penetration.

LIC doctrine uses diverse tactics — from the subtle and psychological (“winning hearts and minds”) to the obvious and brutal. Such flexibility requires the most sophisticated tools available, and the integration of police, paramilitary, and military forces. It also requires a plausible “enemy” — in this case, immigrants who can be accused of almost anything and abused with impunity.

In this kind of war, borders are ultimately unimportant. Battles are waged everywhere, even in communities far from a frontier. This blurs the line between police and the military, and further threatens basic rights.

Future Shock

Latinos soon will be the largest minority group in the US, according to Census Bureau predictions: at least 44 million, or 15 percent of the nation’s population. Although the biggest expansion will occur in states that draw the most immigrants — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey — the spill-over will reach from Atlanta to Minneapolis and Washington state. California is expected to undergo the most dramatic transformation — to at least 50 percent Latino and possibly only 32 percent white by 2040.

Overall, immigration is fueling US population growth, and the Census Bureau predicts a tripling of the Hispanic and Asian populations in less than 50 years. While the number of whites may increase by seven percent, the three largest minorities — Hispanic, Black, and Asian — are expected to rise by 188, 71, and 213 percent respectively. The bottom line is that these three groups are expected to constitute at least 47 percent of total US population by 2050. While such forecasts certainly have much to do with the current anti-immigrant climate, the trend won’t be reversed by race-motivated legislation.

Low-intensity war against non-white immigrants is especially evident along the US-Mexico border. It takes many forms: militarization, criminalizing the undocumented, repressive legislation, human rights violations, and cruel, discriminatory attacks on children and the poor. Arizona’s new law is the latest development – the toughest state law on illegal immigration yet.

According to Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of the plan, the idea is to wipe out the "sanctuary policies of cities.” He says that politicians and others have handcuffed the police, keeping them from finding and arresting those in this country illegally. State action is necessary, he adds, because of political failure in Washington. Democratic Sen. Rebecca Rios agrees that the federal government hasn’t done enough to secure the border, but doesn’t think this is the answer. "This bill does nothing to address human smuggling, the drug cartels, the arms smuggling,” she says. “It creates a lot of negative effects that none of us here want, she adds. "And, yes, I believe it will create somewhat of a police state."

Despite the state’s libertarian streak, Arizona lawmakers apparently have other concerns. In addition to pushing through a roundup of “illegals” by any means necessary, they’re considering legislation that would require any future presidential candidate to produce a US birth certificate – a nod to the “birthers” who think Obama isn’t a citizen. The governor has already signed a law letting people carry concealed weapons without a permit, and another saying that federal laws don’t apply to weapons and ammunition manufactured wholly within Arizona.

The picture emerging is of a state that’s armed and paranoid, hostile to federal oversight, and suspicious of anyone who looks or talks like an outsider. The immigration law, along with other recent legislation, support for the “birther” movement, and the statement by J.D. Hayworth, who is challenging McCain, that same sex marriage laws would lead to men marrying horses is leading many people to ask: What’s wrong with Arizona?

In some respects, its situation is unique. Combined with its proximity to the border, there is the enormous growth of Phoenix, the arrival of so many transplants from Eastern cities and California, and a general disinterest in politics that has let things careen out of control. Turnout is low for primary elections, and the legislature is more conservative than the general public. This has created an opening for figures like Pearce, who has associated with Nazis, Hayworth and Arpaio, who have become influential political allies.

On the other hand, Arizona represents an extreme manifestation of the anger and reactionary sentiments roiling across the country. With the rise of a new state’s rights, anti-immigrant movement, the choice facing the state and the nation as a whole has become basic, between what Mexican author Jose Vasconcelos once called Universopolis – a place in which all the peoples of the world are melded into a “cosmic race” – and the Blade Runner scenario.

In Blade Runner, a prescient 1982 film, Los Angeles in the 21st century has become an ominous “world city” marked by cultural fusion and economic stratification, a sunless and polluted place, overcrowded with Asian and Latino drones who barely look up at the metal fortresses of the rich. USC professor Kevin Starr warned of this possibility, “a demotic polyglotism ominous with unresolved hostilities” in “L.A. 2000,” a city-sponsored report that touted it as “the” city of the future. In essence, that option is an advanced imperialist state, one that encompasses colonies within its own borders. Phoenix could go the same way.

Like Vasconcelos, author Salman Rushdie can envision a more optimistic, multicultural alternative. Immigrants may not so much assimilate as leak into one another, he suggests, “like flavors when you cook.”

Of course, this is precisely what frightens many angry, fearful people. For them the USA is hot dogs and apple pie, and they have no desire to change their diets. They want “their country” back, and with Sheriff Arpaio as an immigrant-hunting Wyatt Earp, plus a tough new law on the books, Arizona has become a flashpoint for that fight.

Related video: The Ballad of Sheriff Joe

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Immigration, Rights & Citizenship

In 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed a so-called Anti-Terrorism Bill, he was actually setting the stage for a long-term assault on civil liberties and undermining non-citizens' rights. A few months later, in an election-season capitulation condemned even by his supporters, Clinton embraced welfare "reform," denying benefits to immigrants – even legal residents. The law imposed a state feudalism that punished the poor and the vulnerable while giving governors open-ended welfare checks – called Block Grants – to spend as they pleased.

Ending an entitlement that began with the New Deal, welfare "reform" also put much of the burden of cuts on immigrants, eliminating access to food stamps and Supplemental Security Income. Even disabled legal immigrants lost benefits. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called this "a form of officially sanctioned brutality aimed at the usual suspects – the poor, the black and the brown, the very young, the uneducated, immigrants. Somebody has to be the scapegoat and they're it."

Anti-terrorism legislation passed during that era also hurt immigrants. For example, it allowed asylum officers at the border to turn back people fleeing persecution or death if they just didn't thoroughly document their case – or request travel documents from the government that was threatening them.

But the most sweeping attacks, then and now, have come in the guise of immigration "reform" legislation, largely designed to drive the undocumented underground, perpetuate exploitation, divide communities, and punish children. A true example of post-modern doublespeak, such "reform" epitomizes a fortress mentality that fuels hate crimes and allows racism to wrap itself in the flag.

Throughout the 1990s, Human Rights Watch accused the US Border Patrol of routinely abusing people, citing a pattern of beatings, shootings, rapes, and deaths. In response, INS detainees in a private jail rioted in June 1995 after being tortured by guards. But even when such crimes – including the sexual abuse of women in custody – have been reported, agents know that the most they will get is a slap on the wrist.

More recently, the US Congress considered legislation that would combine a “compromise” legalization program with new border and interior enforcement measures likely to increase arrests, detentions, and confrontations in Latino and ethnic communities. Blocking traditional avenues of legalization, the leading proposals would increase the size of the undocumented population, while undermining the legal and human rights of immigrants.

After 9/11, the US considered placing soldiers along the Mexico border. It hasn’t happened yet, but similar plans - from a higher wall to drone patrols -- are often touted. Meanwhile, efforts to curtail immigration through tighter security have redirected the flow into the most desolate areas of the border, increasing the mortality rate of those crossing. Between 1998 and 2004, at least 1,900 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border.

Fragile Rights

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States," states the 14th Amendment, "and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

That could change, however. Some politicians want to abolish the citizenship guarantee of this 130-year-old Amendment. The rationale? Too many undocumented immigrants come to the US to insure citizenship for their children. Like the idea of letting states deny free public education to children of undocumented parents, it uses the immigrant "threat” as a pretext for attacks on basic rights and constitutional principles.

“Citizenship in this country should not be bestowed on people who are the children of folks who come into this country illegally," argues Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who has led the charge. In 2006 at least 83 GOP co-sponsors pushed a bill that would restrict automatic citizenship at birth to children of U.S. citizens and legal residents.

In the past, the Supreme Court has described citizenship as the most basic of all rights, a "priceless possession." The opening clause of the 14th Amendment was designed principally to grant both national and state citizenship to the newly free Blacks. Under its terms, citizenship is acquired by either birth or naturalization; thus, any person born in the US is a citizen – regardless of parentage.

A primary goal of the Amendment was to overrule the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court held that neither Blacks who were "imported into this country and sold as slaves nor their descendants" could become citizens. During debate in 1866, Congress also considered the likelihood that it would apply to children of immigrants. Until the 14th Amendment, there was no constitutional definition of US citizenship. Ironically, the Republican Party pushed this and other Reconstruction measures through Congress after the Civil War.

Some claim that, if children born in the US to illegal immigrants are citizens, it's too easy for their parents to obtain visas and citizenship later. The idea surfaced in a 1996 GOP platform proposal; recommended by a panel created by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, it called for "a constitutional amendment or constitutionally valid legislation declaring that children born in the United States of parents illegally present are not automatically citizens." Scholars have warned that an amendment would almost certainly be needed to make such a profound change.

A month before she died, Barbara Jordan, former chairwoman of the US Commission on Immigration Reform, eloquently denounced the idea. "To deny birthright citizenship," she told Congress, "is to derail the engine of American liberty." Walter Dellinger, Acting Solicitor General at that time, added the following prediction: It would create "a permanent caste of aliens, generation after generation born in America but never to be among its citizens." Nevertheless, the proposal is back.

This article is excerpted from a longer analysis written in 2006 but contains material originally published in Toward Freedom and Borderlines, and from a talk delivered at Eastern New Mexico University on September 15, 1996.

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