Just off busy North Avenue in Burlington’s Old North End, a trail leads westward toward Lake Champlain. It goes past community gardens and into a swatch of woods on land that once be-longed to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont and more recently, Burlington College.
As the trail swings along the edge of a sandy bluff high above the Burlington Bike Path, the views of the lake become broad and beautiful. Behind the trail is a field surrounded by woods. The trail eventually joins the bike path and leads to a long, narrow beach.
All this open land sits in the midst of Burlington’s most multicultural, densely settled, and low-income neighborhood. It would be a rare green space in any city, but is especially valuable here because it gives this vibrant neighborhood access to the city’s greatest natural feature, Lake Champlain.
All of it was put at risk in 2014 when Burlington College announced it was selling the 27-acre parcel to a developer. Now, thanks to an effort led by VLT, the City of Burlington, the Champlain Housing Trust, and the developer, 12 acres will become a public park, connecting the Old North End with the lake and bike path.
While the woods, some of the fields, the beach, and the trail will not be developed, the rest of the land will be home to much-needed housing. The partnership led to a plan for nearly 400 mixed-income apartments and condominiums on the remaining 15 acres. Of those, nearly 45 percent will be affordable, including 72 senior apartments. (A neighboring parcel along North Avenue was sold separately and will add 275 apartments to the tight rental market.)
“Throughout the discussions, the intent was to make the neighborhood widely diverse from the income perspective,” said Michael Monte, director of the Champlain Housing Trust.
For Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, the land is the final piece in a grand puzzle. It was the last bit of privately owned land along the waterfront.
“If you look at this part of the city from the air, you now see a green crescent of public land that leads along the lakeshore from North Beach to Perkins Pier,” he said. “That whole section of the lakeshore will now be owned by the City of Burlington.”
However, completing that crescent took time and effort.
Beginning in 2014, VLT helped lead a public input process that aimed to listen to as many community groups as possible, including voices not always heard in planning meetings—immigrants and refugees, high school students, low-income residents, and others.
There were focus groups and one-on-one meetings with community leaders, as well as broadly attended open meetings. People wanted more community gardens and space for relaxing and for kids to play. Keeping the trail to the lake and bike path was important, many said. And the nearby Redstone Cottage, informally known as “The Old Stone House,” was being eyed by several groups as gathering and socializing space.
Dan Cahill, land steward for the Burlington Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront Department, noted: “We wanted to hear everyone, so that the conservation plan would fit the vision of the community.” He said that VLT played a key role in leading the discussions and encouraging participation.
Other parties agreed: “The best thing is they [VLT] reached out to immigrants and new Americans,” said Rita Neopaney, of the Association of African Americans Living in Vermont. “A lot of new Americans are very thankful to VLT for doing that.”
The price tag on the 12 acres was $2 million. The City contributed $500,000 and VLT secured a $1.5 million loan from RSF Social Finance, a non-profit that offers socially responsible lending.
City officials worked with VLT and a consultant to draw up a plan that met as many community goals as possible. While details are still being ironed out, it is certain that more community gardens are planned, a public beach will be created, open space will be conserved, the trail will be upgraded and maintained, and there will be public space in the cottage.
“We all wanted to get this right,” said Matt Moore, chair of the city’s Conservation Board. “Opportunities like this don’t come along very often.”
Now, after more than 10 years of hoping, and two years of planning and negotiation, the property is on its way to becoming Burlington’s newest park.
“For residents of Burlington’s dense core, access to woodland, to the lake, and to open meadowland will be enriching,” said Gil Livingston, VLT president. “And especially for refugee families here, joy will come from growing food and resuming their cultural relationships with the land.”
This story appeared in our 2015-16 Annual Report. Story written by Tom Slayton; top two photos by A. Blake Gardner