If Burlington's real estate market is booming, why are these buildings vacant?
The vacant white house at 280 North Winooski Avenue in Burlington's Old North End is so shaded by the tree in front of it that from the road you might not realize it's abandoned. Sandwiched between commercial buildings, it's surrounded by a sea of crumbling concrete. Disposable cups are tangled in the vegetation in front of the house. Many of its windows are missing, replaced by weathered plywood slabs - some of them covered in graffiti. A flyer for the North Winooski Avenue Renewal Celebration is stapled to the plywood over a side window. The posting might seem hopeful if not for its date: June 25, 2003.
The house, one of about a dozen vacant buildings in Burlington, has clearly been empty and deteriorating for years. It belongs to Clark W. Hinsdale, Jr, a well-known Burlington landlord who lives in Charlotte. He did not return phone calls for this story.
Though most Burlingtonians might not even notice the state of the building, the people who live and work near it are painfully aware of its condition. Paula Haskell, who owns the Greener Pastures thrift shop at 274 North Winooski, considers the dilapidated property a thorn in her side. She believes the empty house contributed to the graffiti scrawled across the side of her building. "There's homeless people living in there," the young entrepreneur says. "Every morning when I drive in, I'm picking up broken bottles, syringes. God knows what's going on in that house. That's not fair for myself and the other tenants in this building."
Haskell's experience is unusual in Burlington, where sky-high property values and a healthy economy have kept vacancy rates low. But she's not alone. City officials list 12 vacant buildings, scattered throughout the city, and they're preparing to crack down on landlords who aren't keeping their properties up to code.
According to Burlington's housing code, vacant buildings are "a blight on their neighborhoods." They "cause deterioration and instability," and they "have an adverse impact upon adjacent and nearby properties." A 2001 study by Temple University, posted on the website of the National Vacant Properties Campaign, reports that houses within 150 feet of a neglected, vacant property experienced a net loss in value of $7627.
Senior Patrol Officer Tom Nash of the Burlington Police Department says Burlington's vacant buildings are "certainly something of a concern for u.... they do attract certain illicit activity." The buildings can become a magnet for the city's homeless and transient population, as well as for teenagers and illegal drug users. The structures often fall victim to what Nash calls "the broken window syndrome" - "an abandoned building that gets vandalized once will probably get vandalized again," he says.
Vacant and abandoned properties can also pose fire hazards: In 1999, six firefighters died in a blaze in an abandoned building in Worcester, Massachusetts. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that 6000 firefighters are injured in vacant or abandoned building fires every year.
Why Burlington's vacant buildings remain so is something of a mystery. Neighbors wonder - why don't the owners tear these buildings down? Or fix them up? Michael Monte, director of the city's Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), says it's not always so simple. Renovation and demolition are pricey. "People think, ‘Just tear it down,'" he says, "but it's not inexpensive to tear something down."
So why not sell the property to someone else? "It's not because the property's not valued," he explains. "It's usually because there's some other issue."
Not surprisingly, few landlords are eager to talk about their vacant properties. Finding out what's going on with them is tricky. Some owners are hard to reach. "You're dealing with the hardest nuts to crack," says Brian Pine, assistant CEDO director. "They are some of the hardest people to pin down."
Pine has spent years interacting with these landlords. "Most people who own property are not interested in being known as a slumlord," he observes. "Most people, if given the option, will put their property back into use or get rid of it.... I think some people just have a different concept of what it means to own property."
So what are the responsibilities of an owner of a vacant building in Burlington? They can be found in Article III, sections 8-42 through 8-50, an ordinance passed by the City Council in 1999. They define a building as vacant if it is not a seasonal building, vacation home, permitted warehouse or a garage, and it has been without an occupant for 90 days. The owner of a vacant building must maintain the structure according to fire, safety and zoning regulations. Doors, windows and other openings must be "weather-tight," and covered by "rigid transparent materials" - plywood-covered windows that don't let in light create hazards for firefighters. The foundation must be sound. The interior and exterior of the house must be cleared of "rubbish" and "excessive vegetation."
Owners must also apply for a permit four times a year. The fee is $500, and may be waived for a year if the owner can prove that the property is being "actively marketed for sale." The fee may also be waived if the owner has secured a permit to demolish the structure.
Brian Pine was one of the rule's supporters. The idea, he says, is to encourage owners to keep the property in use, or sell it to someone who will use it. And it has worked - he and other city officials point to several properties in the city that have been "rehabbed" as a result of the law, such as the house at 182 South Champlain Street, sold in a tax sale, which is now a family home. When the ordinance was passed, more than 30 buildings were vacant - more than double the number empty today.
But for the past several years, enforcement of this ordinance has been lax. The city doesn't have a coherent system for following up on vacant buildings, and can't even say with any certainty how many there are, nor whether the owners have permits. "The lack of enforcement is a problem," concedes Pine. "It's not what the City Council had in mind when they passed the ordinance, that's for sure."
New code-enforcement officer Gregory McKnight, who started work for the city in April, says putting a process in place is one of his "top priorities." McKnight explains that he and his office have begun identifying and contacting landlords, who can expect d from the city within a few weeks if they haven't already. E notes that during his tenure as a code-enforcement officer in Denver, the number of vacant buildings dropped from 747 to 147.
McKnight feels confident that he can make progress here, considering the scope of the problem in Burlington. "It's not an overwhelming task for the code enforcement office to do," he says.
These are the properties on his radar.
33-35 LAFOUNTAIN STREET
The light-blue, two-story building on the corner of Lafountain and Cedar Streets in the Old North End is an eyesore. The first floor once housed a storefront, but the windows have long been boarded up and scrawled with graffiti. The second floor and the back of the building are divided into three apartments. Their rickety wooden porches front Cedar Street.
The paint is peeling. The doors on Lafountain have no handles. The four electric meters no longer have dials. Cigarette butts, candy wrappers and a black plastic bag filled with trash occupy the yard. In an alley behind the building lies the dismembered leg of a child's dol. A narrow, rubbish-filled alley separates the building from the house next door on Lafountain, owned by Dechen Tsomo and her family. Tibetan prayer flags hang above her front steps.
The Tibetan immigrant bougth her house seven years ago, and says 33 Lafountain has been vacant sice she's been here. The Tsomos have since become its de facto caretakers. "It's not very good," she says. "Other people come around and throw trash there. We have to mow the lawn."
According to land records, the property belongs to Craig Lesage of Starksboro, who bought it from his father for $10 in June 1997. Lesage owes more than $18,000 in back taxes on the property, which have been accruing since 1998. City attorney Gene Bergman says Lesage also owes the city for work city employees have done to fix up the property. Despite repeated phone calls to his home, Lesage could not be reached for comment.
His father, Francis Lesage of Winooski, says the property had three tenants when he turned it over to his son in 1997, but he confirms that it became vacant shortly afterwards. He reports that he and his son rarely discuss the building. "Well, the city can take it over as far as I'm concerned," Francis says. And given the amount of back taxes Lesage owes, it's likely that the city will step in soon.
111 NORTH WINOOSKI AVE
Graffiti, broken windows and bags of trash now mar the exterior of this historic two-story home. Dan Chahine, a 21-year-old CCV student who lives in one of the modern gray apartment units next door, says a family of raccoons lives in the junk-filled shed behind the house. "They get stuck in our dumpster," he says. The shed once housed a small repair and locksmith shop. A sign on its door says, "Sorry, we're closed." Through a broken window, a wall calendar is visible - the year is 1975.
George Munson, who lives just down the block, inherited 111 North Winooski Avenue, a house his grandfather bought in 1896. According to the Historic Guide to Burlington Neighborhoods Vol. III the house is known as the "David Read House." After the former UVM treasurer and partner in the Winooski Marble Company.
Munson readily admits the house is vacant, though city officials indicate they weren't sure of its status. Munson doesn't remember how long it's been since anyone lived there. "A couple of years I guess." He says. "I should clean it out and sell it to someone, I suppose."
That actually shouldn't be too hard. Glimpses of the house's glory haven't vanished entirely - the windows on either side of the solid-wood front door are stained glass. The elaborate designs on the old-fashioned skeleton-key lockplate haven't worn away. And the stately porch still stands, though it's desperately in need of some TLC. A peek through the sheer curtains over the tall, narrow first-floor windows reveals hardwood floors, sculpted trim and push-button lightswitches.
Even its owner doesn't seem to understand why it's taken so long to sell the place. He claims there's no shortage of buyers, but "No one wants to talk about money," Munson quips mysteriously.
Munson says he doesn't have a permit to keep the house vacant; he hadn't realized he needed one. "I suppose the city wants to fine me. I better get moving." But he also questions the need for such a permit. "If I'm paying the tax on it and it's not hazardous to anyone, why do they have to put their nose where it doesn't belong?" he asks. "Probably the Politburo has some reason."
76-78 CHERRY ST.
A faded demolition permit hangs in the window of the two-story house at 76-78 Cherry Street, offering a clue as to how long the fate of the vacant duplex has been in question - it's dated June 5, 2000. Weeds have gone wild in the front garden. An open can of cat food sits out back, beside an empty pack of Marlboros and a cardboard box that once contained a case of Natural Lite Ice. But the Catholic Church, which owns the property, appears to be complying with the city's vacancy ordinance. The bay windows are covered by transparent sheets of plastic, and none of the windows is broken.
The Diocese wants to tear the house down, but the city is challenging them in court. Joe Bauer, the Diocese's attorney and spokesman, declined to comment on the case.
Brian Pine of CEDO explains that he'd like to see the house preserved. "It's in phenomenal condition inside," he says. "It would make a gem of a house that you could not build today for less than $400,000." Pine says the city would like to move the house to Crowley Street, to a lot owned by the Burlington Community Land Trust. Once there, it could serve as lead-safe housing for families whose homes are undergoing lead abatement.
But Pine admits that his dream of moving the house is fading. He found out last week that the initial estimate of $30,000 to move the house has doubled. He suggests the City Council could still "go to the mat" and make an effort to save it. But he concedes that the fight might be nearing a finish. "At some point," he says, "you just have to throw up your hands and say we did the best we could."
97 DUNDER RD.
Vacant houses aren't confined to the city's Old North End - the shell of an unfinished house sits empty among the elegantly landscaped yards of Dunder Road, in Howard Dean's swanky South Cove neighborhood. According to the 2005-06 Grand List, the house across the street is worth more than $600,000. Don Albertson, the owner of 97 Dunder Road, apparently halted construction on the house some time ago. Reached at his home on Pine Street, he declined to comment on the unfinished house, except to say that his family has been through a "tough chapter in our lives" involving the death of a loved one. "We're working on the process," he says.
Albertson is in compliance with the city's vacant-building ordinance. He objected to being included in this article. "Let the city resolve the issues," he says.
Judd Allen, who's trying to sell his house next door, says he hasn't heard any feedback about the lot from potential buyers. He thinks highly of Albertson, and even admits, "It's kinda pleasant to have all these woods next to me," though he knows that other neighbors may feel differently. Allen, who is leaving the street after 14 years, says Albertson's house was unfinished when he moved there.
60 RIVERSIDE AVE.
City attorney Gene Bergman lists a structure at 60 Riverside Avenue, owned by Vermont Gas, among Burlington's vacant buildings. But Vermont Gas spokesman Jim Condos, a Democratic State Senator, points out that the tiny brick building has never had any occupants. "It's more of a storage shed," he says. "It's so tiny, someone here described it as ‘less than the size of my office.'" And Condos says the city has yet to complain about it. "The city has not contacted us in any way," he says.
The building is barely even visible behind the lush summer vegetation. It might be a coincidence that on a recent Sunday night, a soggy wallet has been discarded in front of it, with its content...number of credit cards and a Social Security card - strewn on the ground.
56 WARD ST.
According to neighbors, this single-family home became vacant more than a year ago after the death of its owner, Lucille Bouffard. The fences are now sagging and the yard is often overgrown, but current owner Daniel Bouffard has yet to apply for a permit. He did not return phone calls for this story.
City Councilor Tim Ashe recently notified the Code Enforcement Office of its existence. "Some neighbors pointed out that it's a code violation," he says. "I called the code department to get the process rolling on the constituents' behalf. They just sent me a thing in the mail a week and a half ago that said they'd look into it."
308 SHELBURNE RD.
Broken water glasses litter the floor, and the plastic display stands are still on the tables at the former site of the Chinese restaurant where Davis Chan murdered his business partners in 1999. Profanity-laced graffiti that covers the building's backside includes a legend that reads, "We slept here."
Steve Donoghue of Pomerleau Real Estate confirms that Kinney Drugs bought this property three weeks ago and has begun seeking permits to build a drugstore on the site. Spokespeople for Kinney Drugs did not return phone calls for this article.
280 NORTH WINOOSKI AVE.
No one is exactly sure how long this little white house has been vacant, but Laurie Smith, who owns 174 North Winooski Avenue, says he can't remember anyone being there since the mid-1980s. Smith says the house contributes to the "continued downtrodden perspective of the Old North End." It's certainly contributed to the downward trajectory of vehicles in Smith's parking lot - Smith says he's been waiting to fix the enormous pothole until he can be sure he won't have to fix it again if the vacant building is demolished.
The landlord, who lives in Shelburne, has been trying to buy the property from another absentee owner, Clark Hinsdale, Jr., of Charlotte, for four years. The hold-up? "It's taken so long for two reasons," Smith admits. "One is Clark Hinsdale, the other is me."
Smith says things have been moving slowly because his computer was stolen six weeks ago with all of his drawings for the site. But he says Hinsdale has gummed up the works with "deal-breakers" before. According to Burlington's 2005-06 Grand List, Hinsdale owns 29 properties in Burlington, worth upwards of $16.25 million. Of these, the property at 280 North Winooski Avenue is the least valuable - it's worth just $107,000, mostly for the land it's on. The house is valued at $13,000.
Rebecca Becker, residential property manager at Hinsdale Properties, assures the deal will happen soon. "It's been a long process, but it's nearing an end," she says.
Smith is less confident. "It has been imminent befor.... I was told two years ago that I would have a signed deal on my desk in 24 hours." Meanwhile, the building's demolition permit expired in 2004, and it's not up to code. According to the city, Hinsdale has not applied for a permit.
Says Smith, "Theoretically, as soon as the city gives its blessing, and Clark gives his blessing, we're ready to clos.... It's going to get done when it gets done."
365 SHELBURNE RD.
The little Roman guy vanished from Little Caesar's eons ago, and no one has moved in to take his place. The property was initially purchased by Rite Aid, along with two other buildings on the corner of Flynn Avenue and Shelburne Road. But their plans for a drugstore fell through. Two years ago, the company sold the buildings to Burlington Subaru, which plans to demolish them and expand on the site.
Dave Birmingham, who co-owns the Subaru dealership, says the business has been "taking our time. It's quite an expensive proposition." In the meantime, he says, they've been maintaining and patrolling the site. They've also used the buildings for Fire Department life-saving trainings, and have leant them to the South End Art Hop, which has used them for exhibition space. Birmingham notes that one building was opened to graffiti artists, who created a colorful display. "It's pretty cool."
In the best-case scenario, Birmingham says, construction will begin this fall. Worst case, next spring. "It's difficult to book construction workers in the summer season," he says.
299 INTERVALE RD.
The pockmarked dirt road leading into the Intervale is a long way from Church Street, but it's still within Burlington city limits. That means the decrepit Abare House is still subject to city ordinances. The Intervale Foundation owns the 100-plus-year-old home last occupied by Arthur Abare. The foundation purchased the property in 1999 from the city - which purchased it in 1977 - and has long planned to incorporate it into their urban farmscape.
But the house is falling down. City officials and the Burlington Police Department say it's dangerous; two months ago, the Foundation erected a tall barbed-wire fence to keep out animals and transients. Now Tom Nash of the BPD says, "It's getting better."
Intervale Executive Director Kit Perkins says the Foundation would still like to use the house, or at least components of it. She recently wrote a grant proposal to fund the project. "We're doing everything we can to make sure it's safe and secure," she says.
160 PINE ST.
According to city land records, this two-story, single-family brick house, which sits behind a 6-foot chain-link fence, is more than 100 years old. In February, BankNorth sold the property to Redstone, which is eager to redevelop the site. Redstone co-owner Doug Nedde says the company plans to keep the historic house and subdivide it into apartments next spring.
101 MAIN ST.
This 20,000-square-foot brick landmark at the corner of Main Street and Pine has been vacant since 2003, when it was gutted in a fire. Built in 1904, it has been used as the National Guard Armory, an auto showroom, a roller-skating rink, an exhibition hall, the legendary music venue Hunt's, and the Sh-Na-Na's club. Until recently, it was owned by Higher Ground's Alex Crothers and Anna Rosenblum, formerly of The Waiting Room. They sold the property two weeks ago to Redstone. "After the fire happened, we just realized it was a massive undertaking," says Crothers.
Redstone co-owner Doug Nedde says the company will redevelop the building soon. They're in talks with two businesses looking to rent the space, "most likely for offices," Miller insists.