Burlington’s downtown mall redevelopment is months behind schedule and city officials’ patience is running thin. Recently, Brookfield Asset Management — a previously silent partner in the project — took control, a move that has left officials optimistic the project could get on track.
If the mall redevelopment went according the original plan, much of it would be done by now. Instead, it’s an empty lot. There were delays due to lawsuits and the discovery of asbestos in the old mall.
Last year, the city council hoped construction would begin on the $235 million dollar project after they allowed developer Don Sinex to start pouring the foundation even though he didn’t have all the financing in place.
The city council and the mayor grew more and more frustrated as the site in the heart of downtown sat empty and the developers said little.
Some of that changed last month when Sinex’s partner, Brookfield, told the council they’d take over daily operations.
Brookfield has $171 billion dollars of real-estate assets under its management. It has huge projects in Manhattan, London and San Francisco. The company own malls all over the county including Maple Tree Place in Williston.
“I would feel very good about them on that project,” said Matthew Cypher, director of the Steer Center for Global Real Estate at Georgetown University.
According to Cypher, Brookfield has a wealth of experience in real estate that spans the globe.
“So if you’re thinking about how you’d work out a mall in Vermont, I mean they undoubtedly have been looking at retail … both urban, suburban,” he said. “They just have a really good handle on just what’s going on.”
The public hadn’t heard from Brookfield until a group of executives showed up at a city council meeting in January.
Chase Martin, a senior vice president in Brookfield’s real estate division, told councilors the project was moving forward.
“We think it is the perfect project for this market ... and we think a project that is of this size, scale and magnitude is exactly what Burlington really needs,” Martin said.
Martin said that Sinex and Brookfield are still partners, but Sinex wasn’t at the meeting and did not respond to requests for comment.
Martin told the council Brookfield would give them more regular updates.
“We are fully engaged … in the day to day operations and our team in working hand and glove to get up to speed and leveraging our expertise in order to make sure this project is a reality,” he said.
Brookfield did not respond to any of VPR’s requests for comment.
The stature of Brookfield has helped alleviate some city officials’ concerns. In December, Mayor Miro Weinberger said he was quote “cautiously optimistic” about the project.
When asked during a recent interview how he felt about the project, Weinberger said “I would drop the cautiously now. I am optimistic.”
The mayor said he’s already seen signs of progress.
“We have seen in the ... couple weeks since they came city council an increase in the tempo of the construction and design team meetings, we’ve seen a greater on ground presence of Brookfield personnel,” he said. “It leaves us optimistic that this project is, after a challenging period, is getting back on track.”
But city councilor Max Tracy says until work actually starts, he’s skeptical.
“We don’t have a start date established for construction, we don’t have a clear understanding as to when the project will start and ultimately finish and so that’s something that continues to make me feel uneasy,” Tracey said.
Brookfield told the city council they’re doing a full review of the project and hope break ground in the spring.
Audio of the Burlington City Council courtesy of Channel 17.