Monday, September 26, 2011

Fall in Burlington

Earlier in the month, I attended the Northern New England Chapter of the American Planning Association's annual conference. This conference took place in Burlington, Vermont. I had been to Burlington ten or so years ago, and didn't remember much, if anything about it, other than the co-location of UVM. This time, I took a more in depth look at the City, and thought I could share some observations I had below.

First off, I find Vermont to be a very welcoming place; very similar to New Hampshire in many regards. Maybe it comes back to the whole twin states idea, or a similar - though very different history. Vermont is a rural state, no getting around that. Burlington, known as the Queen City, is the most populous city in the State. I saw different population figures, ranging from 38,000 to 42,000 residents in the City. Being the home of the University of Vermont and the hub for the region, it feels like there are 80,000 people in the City. There is a real energetic and progressive vibe in the City. Almost every turn I made had people out and doing things, moving, shaking and living.
I took the obligatory tour of the City by the Planning Director, as part of the conference. It was interesting and had some really good points, explaining how urban renewal cut areas off, and trying to interpret the decisions of the past (by people most likely not involved or active in planning at the time), is always a fun task, and out tour guide was very good at knowing his city and how it flows and grows around its core center.

Like many old cities, Burlington has gone through many phases. Until the mid 80s there were fuel tanks littering the shore of Lake Champlain (the sixth Great Lake), and the waterfront was definitely the backyard of the activity. A move has been in place for the past 30 years to create a front porch feel for the lakefront. In addition to this move, there is a significant commercial market area along a section of street located downtown that is closed to vehicles. This pedestrian mall is worth the visit itself. I have seen quite a few of these, and other than Faneuil Hall in Boston, and a section in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I haven't seen one that works as well as Burlington. This is 4 blocks of street that are crammed with people. Not surprisingly, as with traditional indoor malls, there is a plethora of parking, in garage form, within walking distance to this outdoor mall, and it is heavily used.

There is a healthy mix of local and national stores. There is a Macy's, a J Crew and a the assorted other stores right next to the local restaurants and stores selling local goods and services. A major anchor tenant of the pedestrian market is a 200,000 square foot mall. On the face of it, none of this should survive, but it does. I spoke with some officials from the City and one reason, they believe that things thrive is the student population, and the void that exists outside of Burlington. As I said, Vermont is a rural state, the next closest city in population is a quarter to half the population of Burlington. Montpelier the capital is home to roughly 8,000 people. This is a drastic difference. It means that when you hit these smaller communities, there aren't the services or commercial providers that one might want access to. Vermonters will travel to these larger hub cities to get their needs.

OK, so how does this relate to Dover. Well a few ways. One is that it is always useful to see how another community lives. Burlington has a larger population, sure, and a State University, but doesn't Dover have UNH right down the road? Also, Dover has a large student population living in our rental housing. Dover also acts as a hub of sorts for local smaller communities. If you live in Madbury, Rollinsford, or the Berwicks, chances are you shop in Dover. So it is a scale of services, that exists that is replicated.
The waterfront is also a similarity, with the difference being the scale of development. Burlington is on the shore of Lake Champlain. Dover certainly doesn't have the water frontage on the Cochecho or Bellamy that can compare directly, but there are similar issues to work on. Access is the biggest issue. Like Dove,r the water's edge was an industrial area. This area now is comprised of recreational and open space uses, with hopes for maritime related commercial ventures and a museum thrown in. Sound familiar? Also, in Burlington if you stand on the shores of the lake, you can see downtown, but the connectivity - the how do you get there- question exists. Dover has this problem addressed through the Makem bridge.

One area Dover can learn about is the use of tax increment financing and business improvement districts. These two financial tools have helped Burlington review revenue opportunities and shape vitality in the downtown in a positive and economically beneficial way.

Overall, I always suggest people check out other cities, and am glad I went to Burlington. Next month, maybe I'll hit Burlington Mass. Then for November, I'll try Burlington Maine. I'll let you know how they are.


  1. One can also see that public transit in Burlington (and the surrounding region) is quite like COAST around Dover in a way...However the CCTA/GMTA receives significantly more support and has generally higher frequency of service. According to their website, their busiest route in 2007 was carrying nearly twice the passengers on average as our busiest route does in 2011. The state of Vermont contributes a reasonable amount of funding per capita towards public transit; the state of New Hampshire contributes exactly $0.00

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