Saying Yes to Density

A few weeks ago, Burlington, VT residents said yes to a more dense downtown and with it, a more sustainable transportation future.

After a heated public debate, voters approved the zoning change and funding mechanism that would allow a large, mixed-use redevelopment project—the Burlington Town Center—to move forward to the next stage of development.  If built, the city can expect many benefits from this intensive reconstruction of a key downtown parcel, including jobs, affordable homes, increased tax revenue, better storm water management, and the possibility of capturing waste heat in a distributed energy district.

Saying yes to ground floor retail with upstairs offices and many floors of housing, will also lay the groundwork for a cleaner, greener transportation system.  It will make downtown easier and more pleasant to walk in, provide many more destinations to walk to, and put a significant number of people close to where they need to go every day.

Transportation researchers have identified several elements of urban form that lower vehicle miles traveled, effectively reducing energy consumption, air pollution and carbon emissions.  The BTC plan could serve as a poster child of how those elements can be combined in one sustainable transportation package. It is dense. It blends a healthy mix of uses within floors. It sits beside a transit hub. It is ringed with services and lies smack in the middle of a regional job center.  These are some of the features that offer people real transportation alternatives and lessen their need to drive, or even to own a car.

The project’s design helps too. For the first time in 40 years, pedestrians and bicyclists will be able to move freely across the downtown. The 1970s shopping mall that had severed two key north-south corridors, will be demolished, restoring public rights-of-way and the historic pre-urban renewal street grid. One measure of walkability is the number of intersections in a given area. The BTC plan will add four new intersections, offering people more choices and direct routes to their destinations. It will also turn the mall inside out, moving stores from the interior of the building to the exterior, along public streets, where they will enliven the streetscape with entrances, display windows, and more people coming and going.

Perhaps the biggest drawback in many voters’ minds was the scale of the proposed buildings, which will rise an additional four stories above the previous downtown height limit. But in terms of transportation benefits, the scale of BTC and its height are, in fact, its best feature. The project will create 274 new homes, each offering the ability to arrive at a downtown job, shop, restaurant or school, not by car, but in an elevator. Restricting the buildings’ heights to ten stories would mean eliminating usable space in a very strategic location, including over 50 apartments that are planned for the top four floors. At 14 stories, 50 additional households can rely more on walking, biking, buses and car share, and less on private vehicles to get to where they need to go.

What would make it more sustainable? Reducing the number of parking spaces to the barest minimum.  Restricting the supply of parking has proven to lower vehicle miles traveled.  This can be accomplished by sharing spaces—mixing tenants who need parking at different times of the day and night, incentivizing commercial tenants to create parking demand management programs, and unbundling the cost of parking from residential leases. Giving tenants the option of not paying for a parking space, in a location where they have other travel options, will give them an added incentive to live car free.

As it moves through the City’s development review process, the BTC design will be refined, with careful attention to how the building facade affects the surrounding streetscapes. But the land use essentials of sustainable transportation—density, connectivity, diversity of uses, location efficiency, and access to transit—are in place. When it is complete, many more Vermonters can significantly reduce the environmental impacts of their travel while enjoying the pleasures of an urban lifestyle.