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
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)