Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Campaign Was Just a Beginning

In the 1970s and 1980s, I was part of the movement in Burlington that put progressives in power. But things clearly changed over the years. In any case, local leaders of the Progressive Party united behind Steve Goodkind for mayor in 2015, so the question became whether to run anyway. I waited and listened for months – and basically heard nothing.

What I mean is, nothing of consequence about the fast-tracking of various projects developing across the city – from the threat of another commercial center replacing a North End mobile home neighborhood to the looming, intensive development of 33 acres of irreplaceable open space owned by the financially-strapped Burlington College.

Nothing too about troubling, proposed zoning changes and gentrification plans in the South End that threatened to drive out the innovators and artists who make the city special, and certainly nothing about low-key planning for a downtown mall makeover and another major hotel, this one right at the water’s edge. That project, hidden under the label “adaptive reuse and infill,” was reluctantly acknowledged on page 108 of a 113-page pitch known as PlanBTV. 

On these issues and more, Progressives and their candidate were silent.

As a result, supporters urged me to reconsider, and more than that, they took to the streets and public events to see how others felt and collect signatures to place my name on the ballot as an Independent Candidate. 

After that, the debate changed -- from narrow infighting between the Democratic and Progressive candidates to a sustained and substantive discussion about growth, gentrification and what kind of community we want in the future. During that campaign, I shared insights and lessons learned from over 40 years. More important, I shared what I was hearing – about outrageous housing costs and unmet neighborhood needs, preserving open space and raising local wages, resisting privatization and increasing participation and real accountability. In that sense, our campaign for preservation and change succeeded early, altering the debate and public perceptions before the election. 

In the near future, I warned, decisions will be made that change Burlington for generations. With a developer in charge, the city is on an express train to gentrification. But as a result of our efforts more people began to realize that there is an alternative: to challenge complacency and question the rush to redevelop, to find sustainable solutions based on community values and balanced priorities, and to open up local debate on the big decisions ahead.

As I often said, we can’t just build our way out of problems. We need solutions that balance efficiency and growth with democracy and fairness, and create positive outcomes for all of us.  And to find them we need to ask more questions, get more answers and more people involved, to reclaim the right to make informed choices – the essence of democracy. But that means more openness, access, and accountability than we have been seeing.

Burlington is high on numerous best-of lists. But that doesn’t mean we are exempt from the problems affecting the rest of the country – things like growing economic inequality, profiling, prejudice and discrimination, climate change, and the impacts of militarism – the latter most evident locally in the expected arrival of F-35s at the airport. It’s not too late to stop this boondoggle from making parts of Burlington, South Burlington, and Winooski virtually uninhabitable.

It’s also important to understand that Burlington has seen an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Yet current redevelopment plans will make matters worse. Climate change is real, and so is our basic inter-dependence. What we do matters, here and globally. So, before we give downtown, the waterfront or other neighborhoods a gentrified makeover that increases traffic -- and further drives up rents, we need to rethink our infrastructure and transportation system – to anticipate and adapt to the resource and climate-related challenges ahead.

A new local agenda is taking shape, and with it new priorities and a list of needed policy changes. The outcome of the race didn’t change that reality. For example, three decades ago we had a 1 percent vacancy rate and people spent half their income on housing. Unfortunately, those figures haven’t changed. It's time to try something new.

Once Burlington was known as a buttoned up, extremely white business town. Today more than 25 percent of public school students come from other cultures, races, and countries. It's time to look at the city and the world differently.

The problem isn’t government. But government is only part of the solution. The community, businesses and independent contractors, students, teachers, artists, and all the 21st century knowledge workers — they need to be heard, and both their success and well-being need to be higher priorities. The goal is engagement – how to cultivate and grow it as well as we attend to the tax base.

In the 1970s Burlington residents were told that if the Southern Connector and a waterfront hotel, civic center and condos weren’t built very soon, the economy would go “down the tubes.” It obviously didn’t happen. They also wanted kiosks on Church Street and thought mass transit and bike paths were irrelevant fantasies. 

Now we are told that there is no alternative to leveraging public assets and infrastructure to spur as much growth as possible. But what kind, how much, and at what cost? Do we really want to look like the eastern version of Vale, Colorado? Or do do we want to slow down and set some reasonable limits? The answer has become clear: There’s no need for a fire sale. We can do better than that.

But how? By opening up, redefining what is possible and deciding what we want – and don’t want– including whether we need some basic standards for large private partners, and also by talking frankly – about the values and resources we hope to preserve, and the policies and approaches we need to change. That's the work ahead, and the process has just begun.

(Statement released 3/21/2015)

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the infamous Vail, Colorado, where everyone is just a wealthy visitor and local folks carpool in from the less expensive mountain towns to provide services. Sort of like Stratton,Vermont, actually!