WTF: What's the deal with Burlington's Midtown Motel?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...
In the spring of 1988, Denise Cote was 18 years old and in love. And, like most 18-year-olds who are in love, Cote wanted a private place where she and her boyfriend could go far from the prying eyes of parents. You know, to get to know each other a little better.
So, the night of her senior prom at Mississquoi Valley Union High School, Cote and her sweetheart rented a room. But this room wasn’t at a Sheraton or even a Holiday Inn. The Midtown Motel on Main Street was all the couple could afford. Cote doesn’t remember now how much it cost, but she recalls cobbling together spare change to foot the bill.
She also remembers the room — clean, furnished in beiges and browns, with a comfortable queen-sized bed. “Nothing pretty,” she says. “Just your basic room. But it was a step up from the back of the car.” Oh, and the walls weren’t thin — a plus when you’re 18 and in love.
Today, Cote is 40, and that boyfriend is just a memory. But whenever she walks by the dilapidated modernist building, with its heavy blue awning and its boarded-up windows, a smile creeps across her face.
No doubt Cote is not alone in her nostalgia for the Midtown. Since it opened in 1958, the motel has served countless tourists, young lovers and people down on their luck. But now the Midtown, which closed in 2005, serves only as a hulking eyesore at one of the city’s main entrances. What’s up with that?
Back when the Midtown was built, cars were just beginning their rise to ubiquity. As people made more auto trips, they needed affordable places to stay. While there were plenty of travelers’ motels on the outskirts of Burlington, no such accommodation existed in the city center. The Midtown filled the gap.
But, before a motel could be built on the site, local architect Benjamin Stein had to figure out how to fit a structure with parking on such a long, skinny parcel of land. That wasn’t the only problem, says Devin Colman, Vermont’s historic preservation review coordinator. The property sat atop an old ravine that had been filled in years before.
To make it work, Stein elevated the 15-unit building and put the parking below. The design embodied the International style of architecture, in which form follows function. The balconies were integrated under the flat roof, and the structural framing of the building was exposed. “It looked so cool,” Colman says. “It had that classic 1950s modern look to it.”
From the early 1960s to the early ’80s, the Midtown served its purpose, sheltering travelers and providing cheap lodging in downtown Burlington. By the mid-’90s, the motel had gone downhill. In 1995, developers Jeff Nick and Dan Morrissey purchased it as an investment. Nick’s wife thought he was crazy, he says.
The pair operated the hotel for the next 10 years. By then, it had become a place that was less about travelers and more about people who were down and out or in crisis. Burlington social workers used to send people to the Midtown with vouchers for short-term rentals.
The decision to close the motel was driven by the estimated expense of the repairs and infrastructure upgrades required to keep it open. “It probably wasn’t worth the investment,” Nick says.
But it was worth holding on to the property, especially since it’s part of the city’s long-term redevelopment vision. The block on which the Midtown sits, at the corner of Main Street and South Winooski Avenue, is a “superblock” — that is, one that is largely city owned, with substantial redevelopment opportunities. It is one of the only such blocks remaining in Burlington.
Current occupants of the block are a fire station, a parking lot, the motel, a duplex (partially owned by Nick and Morrissey) and Memorial Auditorium. Ideally, says Larry Kupferman, director of the Community and Economic Development Office, redevelopment would include restoration or repurposing of Memorial, construction of a downtown parking facility, and improvements to public amenities on that corner.
But, before any of this can happen, the city must find a way to fund it. Kupferman says officials are looking into the possibility of creating a tax-increment-financing, or TIF, district — a funding structure that allows borrowing against future tax revenues to finance public projects. The Vermont Economic Progress Council is meeting later this month to review the proposed Burlington TIF district plan.
If the TIF plan is approved and the city is given the go-ahead for redevelopment, the Midtown could see some changes — depending on the city’s needs, says Nick.
There are no solid development plans for the superblock yet, just ideas. One that is not being entertained? Another no-tell motel.