Rooms to Grow
A refurbished block — and new hotel — will soon take shape in downtown Burlington
From the late 19th century until the mid-20th, the block kitty-corner from Burlington’s City Hall Park, at the corner of Main and St. Paul streets, was a mecca for visitors to the Queen City. The block was home to the Van Ness House, a 400-room hotel named in honor of former Vermont governor and Supreme Court chief justice Cornelius P. Van Ness. For more than a half century, the Van Ness House was Burlington’s largest and most elegant hotel, with architecture resembling that found in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
But in 1951, the Van Ness House was razed by a fire. It was never rebuilt and, since then, the downtown block bordered by Main, St. Paul, King and Pine streets has had considerably less prestige and usage. Today, it’s commonly referred to as the TD Bank block for its most prominent feature. Current visitors and residents are most likely to stop there to access its 24-hour ATM, which is conveniently located just steps away from Church Street.
City planners and developers have long bemoaned the underutilization of this prime downtown real estate. In fact, until the rehabilitation of the 16-condominium Hinds Lofts at 161 St. Paul in 2008 and the completion of the new Champlain Housing Trust building at 88 King Street in 2009, most of the block was little more than a surface parking lot.
That’s all about to change. Plans are now working their way through the development-review process to complete the final phase of the TD Bank block’s decadelong renaissance: the construction of a modern, four-story hotel run by a major national chain. The new, 130-to-140-room hotel will also incorporate the historic Armory building, at 101 Main, which sits at the eastern end of the block. Interestingly, the Armory, which was rehabbed in 2007, was built by the same man — another former Vermont governor — who built the Van Ness House: Urban Woodbury. Many Burlingtonians will remember it fondly as the former quarters of Hunt’s Mill & Mining Company, a popular nightclub, which after its closing was replaced by the faux ’50s joint Sh-Na-Na’s.
Doug Nedde is one of the three partners at Redstone Commercial Group, along with Erik Hoekstra and Larry Williams, who have been working on this project since 2001. Its final phase was slated to begin four years ago, Nedde notes — until the global economic meltdown of 2008 brought most commercial construction of this size to a standstill.
Nedde, whose firm was also behind the Hinds Lofts and the Champlain Housing Trust building, sees this new hotel as the crowning achievement for the TD Bank block. The new hotel will be designed to combine the best of both worlds: the modern look of a boutique hotel in an urban setting and the historic feel of old Burlington, embodied by the Armory. The latter will house the hotel’s reception area, restaurant, lounge, bar, library and offices.
“The strength of our site and location is the Armory,” Nedde says. “We’re really leveraging this beautiful historic building on Main Street and building off of that.”
According to Nedde, Redstone plans to keep much of the Armory’s interior intact, including the exposed brick and steel beams and trusses. Those features will sharply contrast with the modern, urban sensibility of the new hotel, which will occupy much of the center of the block. The hotel’s porte cochère, or covered driveway, will most likely be off Main Street adjacent to the Armory.
As it proceeds, will this project attract controversy, even organized neighborhood opposition? It’s always possible, Nedde admits, but unlikely in this case. Smart-growth advocates have long argued that new development in Vermont should start in places where it can minimize impact on the natural landscape and maximize the use of existing infrastructure — in a word, as infill. And few sections of Burlington are more ideally suited to infill redevelopment than the TD Bank block.
Indeed, when Mayor Bob Kiss and other city leaders held a press conference two weeks ago to urge voter approval of a $10 million tax increment financing (TIF) district for downtown, this block was one of the first locales they pointed to as a potential beneficiary of such public-private partnerships.
But even if the TIF doesn’t pass — the results were not in at press time — this $20 million project is likely to proceed without much resistance. (Update, Wednesday morning: the TIF passed.) As Nedde points out, current zoning allows Redstone to build an even bigger building than the one they’ve proposed, which will be shorter than the historic Vermont House directly across the street at the corner of Main and St. Paul.
The limiting factor on the site isn’t zoning or neighbor opposition but parking, Hoekstra says. Simply put, adding more rooms and floors to the new hotel would require the developers to build an even larger underground parking garage than the 231-space structure they’ve currently proposed. And that, he says, would put them dangerously close to the underground water table.
Redstone’s current plans include a unique aesthetic approach to the parking structure. Because one floor will be at street level on St. Paul, the developers plan to block the exterior view of the garage with storefront-type windows that will serve as “mini art galleries.” They’ve even proposed working with Burlington City Arts to offer gallery space to local artists.
“I think it’s really interesting the way they’ve taken into consideration the streetscapes they will impact to minimize the visual impact,” notes Kelly Devine, director of the Burlington Business Association.
From a city planning perspective, the new hotel will accomplish two more often-stated goals for infill development downtown: creating a strong link between the Church Street Marketplace and the waterfront, and bringing more visitors to lower Main Street.
Is the demand adequate to support an influx of new hotel rooms in downtown Burlington? Evidently so. According to Nedde’s market research, the downtown Burlington hotel market has consistently remained solid — one of the strongest in New England — even during serious economic downturns. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the baseline need for overnight rooms created by the University of Vermont, Champlain College and Fletcher Allen Health Care. With the exception of the Marriott’s 161-room Courtyard Burlington Harbor, which was completed in 2007, a new hotel hasn’t gone up in downtown Burlington since the mid-1970s. Now two are in the works: Gov. Peter Shumlin broke ground last September on Hotel Vermont at 41 Cherry Street, a 125-room establishment scheduled to open in 2013.
Like Hotel Vermont, this one will incorporate green building practices, according to Nedde, who says the structures will be built according to LEED — or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — silver or gold standards. He admits Redstone doesn’t plan to spend the extra money to get the plaque and formal LEED certification. “But the standards will be the same,” he says.
As for the timetable, Hoekstra says the project has just entered the “sketch plans” phase, which is a “nonbinding way of introducing the conceptual idea to the development review board and other boards” before the formal permitting process begins.
Assuming everything goes according to schedule, construction is expected to last 16 months, with the new hotel slated to open in late winter or early spring of 2014. That would be ideal timing, Nedde adds, with the approach of college graduations. The staff of any hotel of this size will want 30 to 60 days to “work out the kinks.”
In terms of job creation, Hoekstra says the company is projecting upward of 200 construction jobs and about 80 permanent jobs in the hotel itself. A restaurant in the Armory would add another 50 or more jobs.
“I think it’s a win-win for downtown Burlington,” Nedde says, “both aesthetically and economically.”