Burlington seeks Main Street makeover with TIF Bond

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  • City of Burlington
  • A conceptual view of Main Street

Imagine Burlington’s Main Street with its wide sidewalks, protected bike lanes and lush canopy. Art installations, rain gardens, and café-style seating lined the streets, and wooden swings provided visitors with a place to watch sunsets over the lake.

Such an urban paradise could be possible, city officials say, if voters pass a $25.9 million bond on the day of the town meeting. If approved by a majority, the spending plan would reorganize a six-block stretch of Main Street — from South Union to Battery Street — into the Downtown Tax Increase Funding District. The bond would also pay to relocate or rehabilitate the city’s 160-year-old “gully sewer” line at the corner of Main Avenue and South Winooski Avenue.

Unlike other money items on the ballot this year — a 4-cent tax rate hike and a $23.8 million capital bond — the TIF bond wouldn’t raise taxes. residents. The TIF allows municipalities to borrow money in the hope that infrastructure improvements created in the district will generate revenue to pay down debt.

With a March 2023 deadline for Burlington to take out loans for TIF projects in that neighborhood, officials say the bond issue is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to transform downtown — without raising taxes, to boot. But some naysayers suggested the promise was too good to be true, and argued that the conceptual design didn’t fully address security concerns.

The Main Street project is the city’s second foray into its “Great Streets” program, which aims to make roads more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists. The first such makeover, on St. Paul Street in 2019, rebuilt sidewalks, buried utility lines and installed permeable pavers that filter runoff.

“Bump outs” were built into the curbs to shorten the road crossing distance for pedestrians, but they also made intersections more difficult to cross. The city widened the crossings after several drivers collided with the curbs.

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It’s likely that Main Street would include many of the same design elements, and possibly more, given its generous 99-foot public right-of-way – the widest in the city. To make room for walking and cycling facilities, the city would eliminate some of the parking along the corridor by moving from diagonal spaces to parallel spaces.

Addressing the sewer line is not part of the Great Streets plan, but city officials say it is needed to spur redevelopment of the so-called “walkway block”. The space currently houses a city-owned parking garage, but master plans envision the corner site as a grand entrance to downtown, with multi-story mixed-use structures.

The sewer line crosses a long-buried ravine that was once used by railcars to transport goods from the Winooski River to Lake Champlain. In its current state, the infrastructure cannot support a building on the surface. This issue prevented the Burlington School District from realistically considering the site for a new high school building.

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Passing the bond would pay for engineering studies to determine whether the sewer line should be upgraded or relocated, costs that would also be covered by the bond.

“We have a choice to do things in a coordinated fashion or wait for things to break unplanned,” said Chapin Spencer, Burlington’s director of public works. “The city is putting forth a coordinated and proactive effort to restore infrastructure that is beyond the end of its life.”

If the TIF bond fails, Spencer said, the city should ask voters to approve a separate bond to fix the sewer line, which would be paid for by raising rates on homeowners’ water bills.

There could be similar ramifications for the Great Streets program, according to Burlington Community and Economic Development office director Brian Pine. The city could put the proposal to the November ballot, but Pine said it would reduce the TIF debt deadline of March 2023.

Otherwise, Pine said, the city would have to tackle upgrades over time, without TIF revenue to pay down the debt. “It would be a piecemeal approach that would take many, many years to accomplish,” he said.

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Current Main Street - CITY OF BURLINGTON

  • City of Burlington
  • Current main street

Some community activists don’t buy land from the city. Burlington residents Michael Long, Tony Redington and others have taken to the Front Porch Forum in recent weeks to urge voters to say ‘no’ to the requirement amid concerns over TIF funding and project design .

Like other critics of TIF, Long says it allows the city to pay off its debt instead of sending that money to the state education fund. Long argues that these revenues should instead support municipal and school services that are strained by new developments.

“From my perspective, this is horrible public policy that creates a huge revenue stream that politicians like to have, but at the expense of schools and city services,” Long said during a recent forum on Town Meeting TV. “We should be supporting and funding worthwhile projects, but not using TIF, because that takes away the revenue from those other things that we need.”

Long also questioned the premise that TIF is free money. Others fear that taxpayers will be responsible for refunding the bond if the planned development, and therefore the additional revenue, does not materialize.

But Pine says the city based its ability to repay bail on a conservative 1% increase in property values ​​in the district, when values ​​have actually increased 6.5% over the past 10 years. In addition, several development projects are already in the pipeline, including a large apartment complex on Champlain Street South and a mixed-use building on Winooski Avenue South.

The city would be able to service TIF debt even without those projects, Pine said.

“We’re not going to take a speculative approach to this and say, ‘If we build it, they’ll come,'” he said. “We only enter knowing that there will be a sufficient increase to reimburse the deposit. Otherwise, it is simply not responsible.

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A conceptual view of Main Street - CITY OF BURLINGTON

  • City of Burlington
  • A conceptual view of Main Street

Redington, a vocal walk/bike advocate, focused on the design of the project rather than its funding plan. Several of the intersections along Main Street, all of which use traffic lights, are listed as high accident locations by the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Redington says keeping those traffic lights on doesn’t do much for pedestrian safety, and he suggested the city use roundabouts instead.

“You can have all the protected bike lanes you want, but…injuries happen at intersections; that’s where the danger lies,” Redington said. “[The city] I just took some pretty pictures on Main Street without looking closely at anything.

Spencer, the director of public works, refuted Redington’s claim, saying the bumps and bike lanes would naturally slow vehicular traffic. He noted that the public would have plenty of opportunities to weigh in on the final design before it is presented to city council for a vote this spring.

“It really is a model design, and it will improve safety in Burlington along this key corridor,” he said. “The fact that we’re able to do this scale of a property tax-neutral project here is something voters will support.”

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