A new luxury development is radically altering Burlington's skyline
Burlington may be the biggest city in Vermont, but compared to other urban burgs, it still looks a lot like a small town. In part, that's because it has so few high rises. Looking at the city skyline, there are just a few buildings over five or six stories. The tallest, Decker Towers on St. Paul Street, rises 11 floors, but it's built on a low spot, which makes it look smaller.
The construction of a hotel and luxury condominiums at the corner of Cherry and Battery streets is changing that landscape. In the past year, many Burlington residents must have eyed the tangle of steel girders that now looms over Battery Street and thought, "Wow, that thing is tall."
Austin Hart, chair of Burling- ton's Development Review Board, admits he's had that experience himself. "Every time I look up the hill I say, 'Oh, my God, it's still going up.'"
But Hart and city officials who approved the building point out that it complies with the city's zoning ordinance -- by making use of a few exceptions written into the code. They also predict the edifice will eventually blend in, and argue that tall, mixed-use projects like this are good for the city.
Community and Economic Development Office Director Michael Monte supported the project through the permitting process, where it faced virtually no public opposition. "When it's completed, it will fit differently," he promises. "Ultimately, over time, it'll begin to take its place in the skyline of the city."
So what's it going to be, exactly? David Scheuer, founder and president of the Retrovest Companies, explains that there will actually be three separate entities on the site. Retrovest, which developed the Gables community in Shelburne and the Palisades in Stowe, is overseeing the Westlake Residences. That's an eight-story luxury condo project housed in the building closest to the Wyndham Hotel.
Construction workers have also begun erecting the second entity, an eight-story, 127-room hotel between the Westlake Residences and the corner of Cherry and Battery streets. It's slated to become a Marriott franchise called the Courtyard Burlington Harbor Hotel, to be managed by locally owned Westport Hospitality.
Construction has not yet begun on the third portion of the project. The Westlake Lofts, also owned by Retrovest, will be an L-shaped building with two floors of commercial office space and three floors of condos. Seven of the 21 units for sale will be classified as inclusionary -- or affordable -- housing. The complex will sit on Cherry Street, behind the hotel, and will straddle the entrance to the Lakeview parking garage. Visitors driving into the garage will enter through an arch in the building.
At least, that's the plan. The Westlake Lofts part of the project is still seeking final approval from the city.
On a tour of the site one January afternoon, Scheuer points out where the Lofts will be. Donning a blue hard hat for the occasion, the black-suited developer steps carefully around a large, black-and-yellow
S.D. Ireland crane and piles of rebar.
"This is where you'll drive in for the hotel," he says, gesturing to a mound of snow behind the hotel's concrete foundation. The driveway will enter and exit on Cherry Street. It will lead to a courtyard and a two-level underground parking garage serving both the hotel and the condos.
Scheuer points out that the architects intentionally left a notch between the Wyndham and the Westlake condos. On this bright afternoon, you can see the sun, and the glittering lake, right through it. "It'll be really dramatic when you drive in," he observes.
The developer is acutely conscious of views, because that's essentially what he's selling. Each of the Westlake Residence's 30 units faces west. Potential buyers can examine the lake view from each floor by clicking on the Westlake Residences website. It's this scenic feature, more than anything, that has pushed the price of the apartments to between $495,000 to $735,000 and possibly higher, depending on the fixtures and the floor; the higher the floor, the pricier the unit.
Each of the 1671- to 1829-square-foot spaces includes two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room, library and deck. Retrovest is also offering both standard and "premium finish" packages with amenities such as marble flooring and crown molding that can boost the price by tens of thousands of dollars. Buyers can also opt for empty units sans walls, plumbing or fixtures -- "the vanilla-white box," Scheuer calls it -- and hire their own contractors to do the outfitting.
Apparently there's a market for this product. Retrovest has found 21 buyers from as far away as California and Louisiana. One Burlington couple, Susan and Alan Wertheimer, plan to move into a unit on the seventh floor. The Wertheimers have lived on Bayview Street in the South End for nearly 30 years. Now that their kids are grown, they're looking to downsize. "The house is just a little too big for us now," says Susan.
She adds that the couple looked at other retirement options, but couldn't find the kind of situation they wanted. Alan is a political scientist who retired last year from the University of Vermont. Susan, a native of Bethel, Vermont, works in admissions at UVM. She "couldn't abide the idea" of living outside Burlington, she says. An urban condo seemed an ideal solution. She says she's been up to see her unfinished new home, and confides, almost sheepishly, "The view is just spectacular."
Before construction began last March, this plot was essentially a vacant lot. It had been empty since the 1960s, when the Cherry Street neighborhoods were bulldozed for urban renewal. That controversial wave of development made way for buildings like the Burlington Town Center and St. Paul's Cathedral.
The land at the corner of Cherry and Battery streets was the last remaining undeveloped parcel. It had been owned since 1987 by the Kevin F. Donohoe Company, which also owned the mall. Donohoe sold it in 2003 to the city for $1.8 million. The city then sold it to the various developers of the Westlake project.
Building on the site presented a challenge in part because those views are worth so much. Any development would have to generate substantial revenue to make it worthwhile. But the corner is far from the downtown retail corridor, so building a store wasn't feasible.
Another downtown hotel? For years, the city has wanted one, but J. Canning of Westport Hospitality, who originated the new development, says that with the Wyndham next door, a large hotel on that property would be too risky. Canning wanted to build a medium-sized hotel, and was looking to partner with a housing developer who could help offset the cost of the land. He was the one who approached Retrovest about the luxury condos -- their owners are essentially subsidizing the rest of the project.
With tax revenue from the hotel, and a collective annual property tax bill of half a million dollars from the residential portion of the development, the project will "be good for city coffers," notes CEDO's Monte.
To make the project profitable, the developers realized they'd need to cram a significant number of units into the space. Given the size of the lot, it meant building up rather than out. That's why the Westlake Residences building is so tall.
It was allowed to proceed at that height because of the building behind it -- Filene's. Burlington's zoning ordinance protects "view corridors" to the lake and the mountains, and specifically mentions the importance of the view from Cherry Street. It requires that buildings taller than four stories along those corridors include up to a 40-foot setback on the top floor.
The condo and the hotel have circumvented that restriction. The city allowed the developers to consider all three entities on the site as one building. When considered this way, the "building" abuts the Lakeview parking garage and Filene's. Since there are no doors or windows on the wall facing Westlake -- so the new project isn't directly blocking anyone's view -- the developers were allowed to build to the altitude of Filene's. Though it's hard to tell from Battery Street, the top of the Westlake Residences is the same height as the pediment atop Filene's.
The zoning ordinance also decrees that buildings in the Central Business District are allowed to rise only 60 feet from street level. But the Westlake development received two 20-foot "height bonuses" -- one because they've included public parking, another because they're creating inclusionary housing units in the Loft building on the site. The result: the Westlake Residences building is 100 feet tall.
Actually, it's a little taller, because of how the city measures building height. The city's ordinance gives a few extra feet to buildings with rooflines that slant back at the top, as the Westlake Residences' does.
Despite the building's high profile, there is very little record of any public opposition to the project. That seems odd in a city that's so concerned with its lakefront property. "I was astonished -- we all were -- that there was virtually no attendance at any of our public hearings," says Scheuer.
"It was pretty much the board talking to the developers," recalls DRB chair Austin Hart. "For a project this size, I was really surprised about that."
The isolation of the site, far from the residential neighborhoods, might have something to do with the lack of public scrutiny. But it's true, too, that it was not in the developers' or the city's best interests to aggressively publicize the process. Anyone who owned property near the development, or expressed an interest in it, received notice of the public hearings, and they were advertised through the usual channels -- in the legal notices of local papers, on the bulletin boards in City Hall, and on the city's website. But unless citizens were clued in to that process, they probably weren't aware of the development until the cranes moved in and started lifting steel. By then, it was too late to object.
In fact, the project's massive three-folder file, located in the Planning and Zoning Department, contains just two letters from citizens complaining about the size of the development. One handwritten note, from a writer identified only as "a concerned citizen," complains that the buildings are out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood.
Another, from Cathedral Square resident Polly Beebe-Bove, insists that a new development will make crossing the street difficult. "Cars do not always stop at the crosswalk," Beebe-Bove wrote in 2003, "even when they see you."
But Beebe-Bove has since abandoned her opposition. She now says she's "at peace" with the project, though she regrets the loss of green space.
What little objection there was involved the width of the pedestrian right of way between the Wyndham and the Westlake Residences, and the types of trees to be planted in front of the building. Both issues have been resolved.
There has also been some debate about the inclusionary housing requirement. Because the condos are priced at more than 180 percent of the area's median income, the developers are required to make 25 percent of their units affordable. Scheuer insists that wasn't possible. The city has therefore allowed Retrovest to include a smaller percentage of affordable units in the Lofts; in lieu of building more, they're making a contribution to the city's Housing Trust Fund. The amount has yet to be determined.
Scheuer says these minor disagreements took longer to settle than he had hoped; it's already been nearly five years since J. Canning first approached the city about the site.
DRB chair Hart says he sympathizes with the developers. "It was a big project; it was a complicated project," he says. "And it was going through at a time when there were two unfilled positions in the planning and zoning department . . . it wasn't the DRB at its most efficient."
But the delays seem to be nearing an end. Scheuer says he hopes to move people into the Westlake Residences in late summer or early fall. The hotel is scheduled to open in September. And Retrovest expects to break ground on the Lofts this spring.
Scheuer is optimistic that the community will accept the project in its final form. "I think this building will make a stronger and more attractive visual connection with the waterfront," he says. "This is going to help frame the views more dramatically."