Burlington, Vermont

1997 Great American Main Street Award Winner

Vermont | 1997 Great America Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 10/16/2008

Draped across the terraced slopes of Lake Champlain, Burlington is the largest city in Vermont.  It is also the site of the oldest university, the University of Vermont, and the state's oldest daily newspaper, dating back to 1848.  First settled in the late 1700s, most of Burlington's early inhabitants fled during the American Revolution.  After the war, Burlington resumed a march toward its place as an important New England center for education, Canadian-American commerce, industry, and retailing.  Once the home of patriot Ethan Allen and philosopher John Dewey, Burlington today remains a testament to individuality and diversity – through its people, its politics, its commerce, and its now vibrant downtown.

Building on downtown success, Burlington's once-dismal Lake Champlain waterfront is now anchored by a stunning community park and science center.  And new development complete with market-rate housing, offices, and retail space is under construction.  Burlington thrives because of the skillful management and recruitment of its resources:  a rich architectural history, a diverse population, its proximity to educational institutions, and a leadership and citizenry committed to a strong downtown.

True to its sense of New England individualism, Burlington, (pop. 39,127), has persistently defied all the skeptics who waited for its downtown to fall apart.  Buffeted by the traditional but hefty Main Street challenges of suburban shopping competition and changing consumer habits, Burlington's residents, business community, and government leaders united in a unique partnership to rechart a course for survival and success.

As in many communities, Burlington's downtowners sensed an enemy at the borders in the 1970s when developers brought forward plans for a shopping mall on the outskirts of town. Failed urban renewal policies of the ’50s and ‘60s had already blemished Burlington's historic facades.  The Queen City was on the brink.

In 1979, drawing on mass transportation funds and a public bond issue, Burlington began redeveloping its commercial heart.  A four-block corridor of Burlington's urban core was defined as the center of the city's urban transportation system.  And a pedestrian mall, the Church Street Marketplace, was born.

Unlike many such automobile-free retail zones, Church Street's mix of merchants and restaurateurs prospered.  Offices and urban dwellings flourished above the storefronts and much of the street's original retail fabric, 70 percent locally owned, endures.

Burlington’s Downtown Partnership, a collaboration between the city and the private sector has been the catalyst for much of the success for downtown vitality.  Ed Moore, executive director of the Downtown Burlington Development Association, which represents the private sector allows, “Burlington is more than a place – it represents a perspective of quality in all things and nobody comes here just once.  People develop a love affair with Burlington and just keep coming back to enjoy all there is to offer.”

What made Burlington's downtown refurbishment so successful, leaders say, was the installation of a management team.  Funded by a special assessment district that levies common-area fees, issues licenses, and administers sponsorships, Church Street management promotes, markets, and maintains the plaza's public and private assets.

"Just to put in the bricks and mortar and trees and benches without putting into place the day-to-day management would have been a formula for failure," says Marketplace director Molly Lambert.  "It's unique to our success."

For the foot of Church Street, Burlington courted a second shopping complex, an indoor mall full of chains and franchises.  But because planners insisted on a main entrance on Church Street, the two seemingly dissimilar retail attractions have merged in a comfortable union that keeps some tens of thousands of patrons shopping, dining, and spending time downtown.

?Burlington has taken a very serious approach to planning and to its design-review responsibilities," says Lambert.  "Consequently there has been the implementation of these long-term visions laid out 15 years ago."

There is still plenty of competition with downtown.  A regional shopping mall sits just three miles away from Burlington's town center.  And a discount shopping area is growing on the fringes.  But Burlington's downtown retail vacancy rate is less than four percent, and over 18 years an injection of $25 million in public money has resulted in $95 million of private investment – all because of a remarkable collaboration of people and organizations that continues to make downtown work.

Elected officials, planners, downtown commercial leaders, and citizen advocates consider the downtown corridor essential to the economic health of the region, and are working to hold suburban or "edge" development to a minimum.

“Together we’ve recognized that sound development in downtown Burlington and other growth centers is the antidote to suburban sprawl and the helter-skelter development of Vermont’s pastures,” comments Mayor Peter Clavelle.