What Placemaking Means to South Burlington

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Thursday February 21, 2013

Community visioning week started strong with a solid turnout to the kick-off workshop on placemaking. The evening focused on this question: What if we grew South Burlington around places?

Gary Toth, director of the Project for Public Spaces and Paul Dreher of Dreher Designs facilitated the workshop. Upon entering the City Hall conference room, everyone was asked to split up among four tables, preferably with at least a couple of people they didn’t know. Each table top had an aerial map of the portion of South Burlington that will encompass the bulk of City Center.

Toth began with a presentation of images from other cities and workshops he has helped coordinate as a means of stimulating ideas. He pointed out that one of the major difficulties many cities face is the fact that they were formed piece by piece without regard for the city as a whole; places where everything is maximized for individual function, but results in a disjointed cityscape. How a path, business, or housing development contributes to the rest of the city and community is often an afterthought. 

According to Toth, there are 11 principles to keep in mind when enhancing a community and creating an identity: the community is the expert; you are creating a place, not just a design; you can’t do it alone; they always say it can’t be done; you can see a lot by observing; develop a vision; form supports function; cluster and connect uses; start small; money is not the issue since money often follows a vision; and you are never finished, there is always a way to make it better.

Toth and Dreher urged people to think about what they coined “The power of 10”, or a layering of uses in an area to create synergy. For example, when one travels to a place and no advanced planning of activities is necessary, since there will always be ten things to do based upon the destination.

Each group was then given sets of dots to place on their maps and time to discuss areas they deemed positive, negative, and ‘opportunity’ areas. After discussions, presentation of the maps took place, and the comments and findings were remarkably similar. All groups agreed that the airport and its surrounding homes need improvement, as well as several dicey intersections such as Williston Rd. /Hinesburg Rd. as well as City Hall. Moving the library and post office closer to City Center was also mentioned. A number of areas for opportunity were sited, such as the Staples Plaza and the University Mall parking lot. Most expressed that Al’s French Fry’s was a positive aspect of the community despite its location. The horse farm and current bike paths were lauded, but there was agreement that barriers and a serious lack of connectivity currently exist.

Although many sited Williston Road as a negative or in need of improvement, a Shelburne resident spoke up and said she enjoys the energy and electricity she experiences driving along it. She mentioned the interesting sites located on the road—from restaurants, to retail, to ‘50s-era hotels. A South Burlington resident interjected that all should be thanking her for bringing that to the attention of the room. He said that as individuals who likely travel the road daily, we can become distanced from its possibilities. “Regrettably, the median age in this room is over 50,” he said. “If you asked my daughters what they like to do in South Burlington, they would say go to Higher Ground. It brings national and international musicians into our small town and no one here even mentioned it.”

Toth is encouraged by the way the community is embracing this project, and credits, to a large extent, the City staff and Council.   “It is rare to find such a wide cross section of engaged participants coming back repeatedly over a period of time. There are residents and dedicated professionals sitting side by side with staff and elected officials, and they are working in such an ideal situation that an observer is not able  to identify any group as in-charge,” he said.

An interactive copy of the map used in the workshop exercise will be available on the South Burlington Path to Sustainability website for virtual public participation. This can be accessed through the South Burlington website as well.


SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent