Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s two-year Reimagining Infrastructure project.
When Melinda Moulton came to Burlington, Vermont, the city’s waterfront was a tangled wasteland of scrap metal and barbed wire. The train tracks still ran through, but no passengers had disembarked there for decades. The life of the city carried on, above and away from Lake Champlain. That was in 1983.
Burlington sits along the northeastern shore of Lake Champlain, the long, watery arm that reaches 125 miles from southern Quebec deep into New York state and points, through the Champlain Canal, to the Hudson River, New York City, and the Atlantic Ocean. The lake helped make Burlington the foremost city in Vermont. In the nineteenth century, lumber poured out of the New England and Canadian forests, through Burlington, and on to the rest of the world. The world was built out of wood in those days, the lake was a “super highway,” and Burlington was the third biggest lumber port in America. But the industry fell off, the businesses that had grown up around it followed, and the waterfront hollowed out into Bruce Springsteen-style darkness on the edge of town.
I didn’t know any of this when I saw the Burlington waterfront thirty years later—I was only there to have a crepe and a drink at a highly recommended place called Skinny Pancake. But then I saw a little sign on the wall beside the men’s room key. The sign told me that the bathroom I was about to use was shared with several other businesses in order to operate more sustainably. The way there took me past murals of endangered species and into a lobby where informative signs shared the history I talked about in the above paragraph. Most cities develop out into the hinterland, but here, clearly, Burlington had developed back in and renewed itself. I decided that I had to learn more about One Main Street.
When I returned a few weeks later, the winter sun was setting over the Adirondacks to the west, an orange streak separating the black mountains from a purple-gray sky. I ducked into the offices of Main Street Landing, stepped through a door papered with hopeful bumper stickers (Dare To Be Remarkable…The Best Things in Life Aren’t Things) and sat down with Melinda, the developer who made much of it happen.
Melinda and her business partner, Lisa Steele, saw potential in the lakefront wasteland. Other people had looked at it as well—there had been more than a dozen attempts to do something with that land—but the two “old hippies” had their own ideas. They saw 250,000 square feet of businesses, but they also saw an opportunity to link the city and the lake again, and to build with social justice and the environment in mind, making their buildings healthy, happy, productive places to work. To be clear, Melinda and Lisa were businesslike hippies, experienced developers who made tough decisions. But part of their success, according to Melinda, lay in a kind of naïveté: other people thought that developing the lakefront with these kinds of ideals could never work, but they did. As you probably know, especially if you’re reading this publication, America changed between the 1980s and today, and sustainability, which wasn’t even a thing when Melinda and Lisa started, became mainstream. Main Street Landing attracted plenty of tenants, “cool people” who supported the larger mission.
One Main Street, LEED certified at the silver level, stands as a physical, functioning example of sustainability values. Rain falling on the property is redirected and filtered before returning it to the municipal supply. Walls are stuffed with dense-pack cellulose, a recycled material that makes buildings far more efficient, and quieter, than ordinary insulation. The roof terrace tiles were once old tires. The walls between toilet stalls are made of recycled milk bottles. Walking around later, I learned that much of the material that made this building had been recycled, and that the waste from the construction was itself recycled in turn.
The development has been economically sustainable, too. Melinda credits the multi-year permitting process, usually not a favorite of developers, for ensuring quality development and for keeping progress on solid ground. One Main Street prospered through the Great Recession, with never more than 2 percent vacancy the entire time. Their tenants are a salad bowl of diverse businesses, from the Peace and Justice Store to Merrill Lynch. Politicians like Howard Dean and current Vermont governor Peter Shumlin have run their campaigns out of the development. It’s a happening place.
Developers are often the bad guys in environmental stories. They’re the people who turn forests into McMansions and drain wetlands and so on. But we need to stop thinking that way. To make the kind of change the world demands, we need developers, or more specifically, redevelopers, like those behind Main Street Landing. Infrastructure is about flows—how we channel water, waste, and ideas across the landscape and through our communities; places like the Burlington lakefront are nodes where we handle and direct these flows. As we push the transition from the old, dirty economy to a new and more sustainable economy, the biggest targets for business should be the fallow husks of that old economy—the tanneries, mills, and train stations that stand ready for reintegration into their communities. Conservationists often speak of ecological restoration, but the world needs economic restoration as well.
Could this happen in your town? Burlington is more progressive than most cities, and Main Street Landing owes some of its success to support from democratic-socialist mayor (now senator) Bernie Sanders. But there are a growing number of other cities with similar possibilities. The Burlington waterfront has bloomed since the eighties, and other businesses from restaurants to aquariums have grown up on Battery and Lake Streets. The change is not comprehensive—as you go north away from Main Street you can find unused lots—but overall the city has reconnected with its lake, from the University of Vermont to the bustle of Church Street and on down to the water. There is even a project to renew passenger rail, connecting Burlington to New York and Montreal. The Champlain waterfront may become a super highway, twenty-first-century style, once again.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He’s currently at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments. Photograph of Main Street Landing’s Wing Building by Erin Dupuis.