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Will Burlington's Champlain Parkway Ever Get Built?

A woman stands with her hand on a tower of filing cabinets.
Emily Corwin
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VPR
Architect Bren Alvarez is the creator of the "World's Tallest Filing Cabinet," a monument to bureacracy documenting how long the Champlain Parkway project has gone unbuilt since it was first proposed in 1965.

When Norwich resident Max Porter drives to Burlington to visit his mom, he gets off Interstate 89 and onto Interstate 189, a tiny spur of highway that ends at a crossroad, and cement barriers.

Note: Our show is made for the ear! As always, we recommend listening if you can.

Behind those cement barriers is grown-in pavement, i.e. the Champlain Parkway, a road project that got started in the 1960s but was never finished.

A young person holding a yellow can with a sunset over a lake in the background.
Credit Courtesy
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Our question asker, Max Porter, looking very Vermont-y sipping his Vermont-brewed drink on Lake Champlain.

And Max wants to know: What’s going on 50 years after the fact? So he put a question to Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism project. 

[VPR's 'Brave Little State' Expands To Answer More Listener Questions About Vermont]

“I am wondering what the plan is for the abandoned stretch of Interstate 189 or the Champlain Parkway.”

In other words: Is this thing ever going to get built?

So far, the Champlain Parkway has been tangled in red tape for so long that there’s a monument to bureaucracy in Burlington’s South End. (You’ve probably seen this very tall piece of public art, a stack of filing cabinets some 40 feet high. If you haven’t, just search Instagram for the hashtag #worldstallestfilingcabinet.)

As for city officials, they say they “are on the cusp” of going out to bid for the project.

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A walk with Steve Goodkind

I go for a walk down the stretch of abandoned parkway near I-189 with a guy named Steve Goodkind. He’s got a beige pith helmet on, some white muttonchops and a mustache. He cuts … an unusual figure.

And as he stands on this roadway, the pavement beyond the barriers at the end of I-189, Goodkind says it has a couple names, official and unofficial:

“I think it was called ‘the road to nowhere’ – I think it was called C1.”

(Full disclosure: I live in this neighborhood. I walk my dog, Griffin, on this very stretch of abandoned road. And if it ever opens, the project would probably reduce traffic on my street).

Anyway, for three decades, Steve Goodkind was the guy fighting for the project. He was city engineer in the mid-1980s, and eventually director of public works until 2012. And he said the whole thing started as a bigger idea than just this road.

A man with muttonchops and a beige pith hat.
Credit Emily Corwin / VPR
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VPR
Steve Goodkind used to work for the city of Burlington as an engineer and the director of public works. Here he stands on the unfinished portion of the Champlain Parkway behind cement barriers at the end of Interstate 189.

“The federal government was building the Interstate Highway System,” Goodkind tells me. “A lot of it had been built out, but now they were switching to a phase where they were building the so-called, I call them ‘ring roads.’”

It was the 1960s, and this was a new trend in infrastructure: elevated highways that circle around a city, usually called beltways. The feds were pouring money into projects like this. Vermont wanted in, since it would reduce traffic inside the city, and – it was thought – make the South End more desirable for residents and businesses.

The federal government agreed to pay the lion’s share of the original $26 million project. Burlington would only have to pay 2 percent. 

At first, the city proposed a fourlane elevated highway that would go all the way from I-89, along Lake Champlain and up to Colchester. Picture a mini I-95 wrapping around Burlington instead of Boston.

But:

“The project was too big,” Goodkind says.

Residents pushed back. 

“And that’s the history of this road,” Goodkind tells me.

So, the city shrunk the whole thing. By the 1970s, the proposal dropped down to ground level.

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In the 1980s, the city got serious. It tore down homes. And paved the very section of road I’m walking on with Goodkind.

But then, something happened. Something Goodkind calls the “death knell” of the entire project. A section of the project’s route was designated a Superfund site. The soil was contaminated.

“That created a huge dead end,” Goodkind says.

Instead of looking for a way around it, the feds cut the project down. By the late aughts, the plan included just a mile and quarter of new road, mostly two lanes wide. It would route people around the South End neighborhoods. But that was it. People would still get into town via the same congested road they had always used.  

“But it was like, ‘What the hell, this isn't the project any of us wanted,’” Goodkind says. “It’s worse than it’s ever been.” 

Sun pours down on a smashed piano, with graffitied on the pavement.
Credit Emily Corwin / VPR
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VPR
Smashed pianos, graffiti and cracked pavement are what currently line the route along the unfinished Champlain Parkway.

Here – on that abandoned stretch of road the city paved in the 1980s – weeds grow up through the cracks. As I chat with Goodkind, we pass not one but two smashed pianos. We pass graffiti, both artistic and vulgar. There’s even a low-tech skate park. As we walk by it, two young men give us the side eye.

So, there are a lot of reasons this project has been delayed. It was too big; the route was contaminated; residents objected. And the delays have led to more delays, because studies get outdated and have to be repeated.

But today, there’s another holdup.

Different kind of delay

A group of activists including Goodkind has filed two lawsuits (which can be read here and here) in order to delay and change the project. And as far as I can tell, these are the only things stopping the city from breaking ground.

One major argument has to do with the new route the feds chose to avoid the contaminated site. Opponents say it discriminates against low income Burlingtonians, reducing congestion in a higher income neighborhood, but increasing traffic in a lower income, more diverse neighborhood further North. 

On mobile? Click here to view the map.

Recently, the feds agreed to study the project's impact on that lower income neighborhood. This could result in more delays, or even changes to the route, though it's hard to know how likely those outcomes are.

In the meantime, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says “it is time” to finish the project. He also notes his position technically makes him the “chief builder of the Champlain Parkway.”

“I do not think it has been good for Burlington that this has been hanging out there, unresolved, taking focus and resources away from other needs for decades,” he says.

Weinberger agrees with Steve Goodkind: He says the project is imperfect. But he still wants to see it done. And the city is close. 

It has its Act 250 permit in hand. The construction documents are done. The right of ways are done. The utility agreements are executed. 

“I’m optimistic that we will …” Weinberger hesitates mid-sentence. He’s made this promise before. So have other mayors. But he goes ahead.

“I will say it, despite all the prior projections,” he continues. “It seems to me very likely that this project will be in construction in 2020.”

A man stands with his hands on his hips.
Credit Emily Corwin / VPR
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VPR
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger knows it's a tricky business to predict the completion of a project that's been unfinished for over 50 years. But he went ahead and said he thinks it will be underway in 2020.

Weinberger has been trying to check the Champlain Parkway off his list for seven years. So I ask him if working on it has taught him anything. 

“You do see some of the positives and negatives of the way we make decisions here,” he says.  “I mean, I think it's a positive that people rose up back in the '60s and '70s and blocked the elevated highway plan.” 

He says other cities such as Milwaukee and Seattle are trying to tear down these types of roads today.

But Weinberger says he also worries:

“You need to be able to build things. And sometimes, our ability to do that and make decisions and get resolution is challenged, and that does concern me.”

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Perhaps, if you’ve been to Burlington, you’ve seen that bizarre tower of filing cabinets stacked 43 feet in the air. It’s on Flynn Avenue, on an overgrown patch of undeveloped land right in the path of the as-of-yet unbuilt Champlain Parkway. It’s designated on Google maps as the “World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet.”

Architect Bren Alvarez says the idea came to her back in the winter of 2002. At the time, the parkway project was back in the news and on everybody’s minds, including hers. 

She says she was probably on the phone, mired in that same red tape that comes with every building project in Burlington, when she found herself drawing.

“It was like literally a phone doodle of a stack of file cabinets,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Woah, what a cool project that would be,' that you know, I wonder if I could pull that off.”

Within the year, she had done it: 38 filing cabinets more than 40 feet in the air. One cabinet for each year the project had gone unfinished.

A graphic showing a tower of filing cabinets with dates and actions assigned.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR

Today, Alvarez’s tower of filing cabinets is still here. It’s 17 years old.

She’s never tried to move it. Until now. Recently, she figured she better move her tower before a contractor shows up with a demolition crew. 

She found a place to put it, and got excited for its next stage of life: 

“So I had probably ten days of total euphoria, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it, everything’s fine, I’ll just pop it over there.”

Then, she went to the zoning office.

“It was like, ‘Ooooh,’” she says.  

Not so fast. To move the monument to her friend’s property, Alvarez says, she has to apply for zoning variances, which is going to take ... time

“So right now the challenge is, zoning thinks it might be too tall,” she says. “So the irony of that is gigantic.”

She’s hoping it’ll happen before 2020. But if it doesn’t – how apropos.

Correction 1:15 p.m.: The original version of this story contained a photo caption that incorrectly cited Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger saying when he thought the Champlain Parkway project would be done. He thinks it will be underway in 2020.

A thin grey line.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. How can you support us? Become a sustaining member of VPR, or leave us a review on your favorite podcast app.

This episode was produced by Emily Corwin, with editing from Mark Davis and mixing from Peter Engisch. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music. Other music by Blue Dot Sessions and Peter Engisch.

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