If you’ve been in downtown Burlington this year, you’ve probably seen a big empty lot. It's right where a new mall is supposed to be built.
A mall with lots of space for new stores and offices, plus 288 apartments — and at 14 stories, it would be the tallest building in the city. But construction on the big project hasn’t started, and city officials are frustrated by the lack of progress and communication from the developers.
If things were on track, the project’s foundation would have been poured by now, but on a recent day, the construction site was relatively quiet. A crane moved steel beams into a pile at one corner of the lot.
The CityPlace Burlington project is months behind schedule, and developer Don Sinex has not secured all the financing for the $235 million project.
Sinex and his partner in the venture – Brookfield Asset Management — haven’t said much publicly about the delays or a new timeline.
VPR tried to talk to Sinex, but he said he was traveling and couldn’t chat. He emailed a statement that the project would start up again in the spring. Brookfield did not answer any emails or phone calls.
City leaders want the developers to be more upfront about what’s holding up the work.
City Council President Kurt Wright admits it’s disappointing the project isn’t moving faster, but also acknowledges that delays in construction happen.
“In a project this size, of this magnitude, that it’s not surprising that there are some glitches and some bumps in the road," Wright said. "And I’m just hopeful that that’s all these are, are bumps in the road right now.”
When the City Council considered the redevelopment plan, Councilor Max Tracy was a vocal opponent. But he said since it was approved, he had hoped the developers would stick to their agreement with the city.
“Residents and Burlingtonians deserve better in this case," Tracy said. "They deserve a project that is continually moving and a project that meets the agreements that were made."
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has supported the project since its early days, but recently he’s been critical of the delays.
“We have communicated to them that it is a problem that they're not in construction,” Weinberger said. “We have pushed them hard to hold up that commitment, and we are looking for them to communicate to the public what their intentions are.”
The city hasn’t put taxpayer dollars into the project, though the redevelopment does include re-opening two public streets. Weinberger said the city won’t pay for those streets until they are done.
“If they don't show enough progress soon, that would be something we'd have to start reconsidering,” Weinberger said.
The mayor is cautiously optimistic the project will restart soon. He said that Brookfield, one of the largest real estate developers in North America, has a good track record.
But financing and construction delays aren’t the only obstacles. There’s also a challenge in federal court about an earlier lawsuit.
According to John Franco, the lawyer who filed both cases, the changes would reduce the number of parking spaces.
“Behind our backs, Don Sinex with the cooperation of the city of Burlington … gutted major provisions of that agreement," Franco said, "and they did it behind our back without notifying us."
In emails to VPR, Sinex struck an optimistic tone about the project. He wrote that he’s “very close” to getting all the funding for the project and that he and Brookfield are “committed to the success of the project.”
Sinex wrote they’ve taken steps to show their commitment, like paying the city $72,000 to expand the amount of free parking during the holiday season.
The developers have also agreed to reimburse the city $30,000 for administrative costs related to the delays and pay $50,000 for marketing to encourage people to shop downtown.
More free parking might alleviate some of Bonnie Smith’s concerns — she’s a manager at Ecco, a clothing store downtown.
Smith said when the old mall got torn down, the city lost one of its parking garages.
“I think that is really hard, ... how to get people downtown and finding them places to park,” Smith said. “Because when school is in session, obviously you have students that are parking everywhere and then you have people visiting from out of town. So it does push [out] the locals who come in from ... like Charlotte or South Hero or wherever. You know, you want to make sure you have a spot.”
Smith’s not surprised that there are delays in the redevelopment, but she hopes the developers will be honest about the finish date.
And the end date is still a ways off. According to Sinex, once construction starts it’ll take at least two years for the initial stages of the project to open.