Burlington, VT

Contact Name
Meagan Tuttle
Project Dates
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Municipal government and planning, Placemaking/placekeeping, Design
The Great Streets Initiative is an ambitious effort to transform downtown Burlington’s streets into dynamic public spaces. The launch of the initiative included the development of the Great Streets Standards, the reconstruction of 6 blocks on two streets in the heart of the downtown, and the renovation of downtown’s central civic space, City Hall Park. The Standards are an aspirational, yet implementable guide to the rebuilding of Burlington’s downtown streets according to four values articulated by the community through years of planning: that Burlington’s streets are walkable & bikeable, sustainable, vibrant, and functional. The Standards offer a palette of elements that will be utilized over many years resulting in a unified downtown streetscape that frames City Hall Park.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
Since it’s visionary creation in 1981, the Church Street Marketplace has long been viewed as the iconic centerpiece of downtown Burlington. Over the years, projects in other parts of downtown have utilized a wide range of furnishings and materials on an ad hoc basis, resulting in streets with varying characteristics and levels of investment, function, and durability. Born out of the adoption of the city’s signature comprehensive downtown master plan, voter approval to use the city’s TIF district to make generational investments in downtown public infrastructure, and significant private redevelopment, the Great Streets Standards were a foundational tool to guide and manage public street improvements for the next several decades. The goals for the creation of the Standards included:

• Implementing the community’s vision for its streets as public spaces that are walkable & bikeable, sustainable, vibrant, and functional by identifying a common palette of materials and furnishings that could be implemented as streets are reconstructed over time.
• Creating a public realm that showcases buildings’ facades, signage, and public art as the unique and authentic elements of the downtown, and which complements Church Street’s distinctive visual character without replicating it wholesale.
• Combining city, state, and federal requirements for street design into a single document, that identifies a family of elements that can be adapted to unique street conditions, project budgets, and streets’ programming constraints.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
• City Team: Included staff from 9 city departments representing all divisions with a role in planning, designing, or maintaining public rights-of-way, including Public Works, Community Development, Planning & Zoning, and City Arts. This team provided information regarding current built infrastructure and maintenance; identified community planning, design, and technical/policy documents which should influence the project goals and outcomes; solicited public input on key elements of the standards; and worked with the consulting team to refine the palette of elements ultimately included in the Standards.
• Consulting Team: A multi-disciplinary team of designers and engineers including urban design, landscape architecture, lighting design, civil and transportation engineering, and transportation planning. The full team included: Suisman Urban Design, DuBois & King, Michael Vergason LA, WagnerHodgson LA, Domingo Gonzalez Associates, Urban|Rain Design, Third Sector Associates, and Toole Design Group. This team worked to create a cohesive palette of elements that embodied the city’s (sometimes conflicting) urban design, sustainability, maintenance, and financial criteria. The team provided recommendations and conducted research on behalf of the city related to material and furnishing specifications; street typologies and cross-sections; and creative problem solving for space-constrained public rights-of-way.
• Elected & Citizen decision-makers: in addition to general citizen input on the design objectives and individual elements within these standards, the project included the review and approval of the Standards by six public boards and commissions. This included the Public Works Commission, Parks & Recreation Commission, and Electric Commission as well as the City Council and the Council’s Parks, Arts & Culture Committee and the Transportation, Energy & Utilities Committee. These boards are each vested with authority over various aspects of the design and maintenance of city streets, and were individually and collectively responsible for endorsing a set of standards which balanced all of the functions of the city’s public rights-of-way.
• Two public art review panels: engaged to solicit and select Public Art for City Hall Park, slated to break ground in the spring of 2019, and 10 blocks of the first streets to utilize the Great Streets Standards, several of which are under construction and several more slated for construction of the next 2-4 years.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
The city’s first downtown master plan, planBTV: Downtown & Waterfront Master Plan, identified seven place-based themes for a sustainable downtown, including building a vibrant economy. This theme identified the need to expand the energy and atmosphere of the Church Street Marketplace to the side streets, and all the way to the waterfront by creating an active and inviting pedestrian environment. Public investment in clean and wider sidewalks, pedestrian scale lighting, benches and public art, street trees and flowers, street musicians and outdoor cafes, and bright colors and well-maintained amenities are all elements that are identified as being key to creating this environment. The Great Streets Standards address these elements, and are a critical tool to ensure that public investment over time enlivens these streets as public spaces that support and are supported by the civic, economic and cultural activities happening along them.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
Per the project's professional design team, inspiration was found in many streets, neighborhoods, and projects in places like San Francisco, Boston, Indianapolis, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Montreal. However, the designers quickly learned that Burlington had lots to offer with its own rich history, economy, arts, natural setting, and its readiness to embrace change that ultimately shaped the approach to this project.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
• RFP to solicit a multi-disciplinary design and engineering team to develop all projects in the first phase of the Great Streets Initiative, including the development of the Great Streets Standards
• Design team reviewed and synthesized dozens of local, state, and federal plans, studies, and standards to arrive a cohesive set of principles to guide the development of the standards
• Design team performed an extensive existing conditions analysis, inventorying all elements of downtown’s streets from materials, trees and planting conditions, street furnishings, public art, and street dimensions including the type of transportation modes accommodated.
• These observations were shared with the community, and input was solicited regarding preferred future streetscape elements to meet the goals of walkable/bikeable, sustainable, vibrant, and functional public streets.
• Design team began to compose technical and visual “street typologies” based on synthesis of current conditions, future plans, and community input.
• Design team began to create a family of materials and streetscape elements that could be applied to the street typologies in order to meet the goals.
• Draft Standards were applied to the conceptual designs for the reconstruction of two city streets to test the technical and visual cohesion of the typologies and palette of elements.
• Draft Standards and their application to the conceptual plans were shared with the community and with the six public boards who would ultimately approve them.
• Multiple iterations of concept plans, product research and design to inform the standards, and cost estimating led to a final draft standards document that was ultimately adopted by the six boards and the City Council in December 2017.
• RFQ and selection process to source artists for the City Hall Park Design team to develop an integrated public art concept for the design of the park focusing on green infrastructure improvements.
• RFQ and RFP and selection process to integrate public artwork into construction documents for first reconstruction projects.
• City broke ground on its first street reconstruction project utilizing the Standards in 2018, with construction anticipated to be complete in mid-2019.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The major obstacles for this project were related to the physical constraints of the existing built environment, the multi-disciplinary nature of the final Standards document, and controversy around other redevelopment projects in the downtown.

Burlington’s built landscape is hundreds of years old. As such, many streets are narrow, with historic buildings right at the property line, and generations of public infrastructure—both above and below ground—that make up the streetscape we know today. These physical constraints were one of the primary obstacles for the creation of the Standards. They required creative approaches in order to embrace modern streetscape and system elements, to allocate space among users and transportation modes, to create continuity in urban design, and to blend aesthetic patterns. According to our design team, “Making Great Streets sometimes comes down to a negotiation of inches, especially in the cross-section of the street. It’s important to challenge conventions that have determined how street space is used and find the small details that add up to something transformative.”

This negotiation was at the crux of another major obstacle—balancing the needs of all of the users of and interest in the public right-of-way. This obstacle was inherent in the scope of the project—creating a workable solution that embodied both the aspirational street design principles with the functional needs of public streets. This balance challenged the public perception of how streets and streetscape elements can and should be used, city staff’s focus on how streets function and are maintained, and decision-makers’ perspective on the user priorities that should drive streets design. In particular, how this balance could result in the loss of parking on some streets was an issue that garnered fears by the businesses community and opposition from some elected officials. Ultimately, this required making the sometimes invisible systems more visible, and opening everyone’s eyes to more than just what was immediately in front of them in order to wrestle with how these concerns relate to and impact the rest of the right-of-way.

The final major obstacle was related to public and private redevelopment work happening in the downtown at the same time the Standards were being developed. Many of the streets that will be the first implementation of these Standards are moving forward in conjunction with these projects, which have become controversial. CityPlace is a private development project, but the implementation of the public street improvements is financially dependent on its completion. The project has had to contend with public backlash against its overall scale, as well as lawsuits challenging its adherence to approved development permits and zoning requirements. City Hall Park, a project implemented by the City, has been similarly challenged by some members of the public for its contemporary design approach and tree management program. While the Standards are not directly related to the controversies around these projects, the ability to implement these Standards on streets adjacent to these projects depends on their ultimate success.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
People, planning, and pilot projects.

People: The multi-disciplinary team—both of city staff and designers—brought a broad depth of understanding to the challenges that were addressed in the Standards and a wide variety of experiences in design and engineering disciplines and experience with the city. The project management team, in particular, included a trio of city staffers with backgrounds in city planning, civil engineering, and community development, who were able to help the large team navigate all of the hurdles, act as translators to communicate these challenges among professional disciplines, and ultimately serve as facilitators that helped the group come to creative solutions. Additionally, the design team leader proved an invaluable resource, as they understood the challenges that the city was facing, and had both the vision and determination to help the city understand the implications of making their aspirations more realistic.

Planning: Creating the Standards was in many ways the implementation of dozens of planning and policy documents that had been created by the Burlington community over many years. These documents provided the foundation and scope for the principles, goals, and technical aspects that would ultimately be included in the Standards.

Pilot Projects: Despite hard work to find creative solutions to design and technical challenges, the Great Streets Standards identified many treatments, materials, and specifications that would be piloted before becoming a final standard. This was an important solution to help balance innovation, design, performance and funding and to keep the Standards as a whole moving forward. Our early construction projects will provide a laboratory to test these elements and continue to problem solve.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
• Learning from what other cities have done is important, but don’t get lost in trying to translate those ideas verbatim to the project at hand. Each place’s own context and history offer a lot to learn from, and the creativity is about how to bring tradition and innovation together.
• Create a multi-disciplinary team and keep them all engaged throughout the design and decision-making process to ensure that all of the important considerations are represented and that everyone understands firsthand the tradeoffs that led to the final product.
• Sometimes common streetscape elements carry more emotional/cultural attachment than you realize. Engage users in a conversation early about the most important criteria for how these elements look and function in order to get the design right and avoid reworking a solution that misses the mark. Use visualizations to help people experience the solutions, otherwise they might assume the worst outcome.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
This project has elevated the importance of urban design and placemaking as a key element and driver of economic, civic, and cultural vitality in our downtown. The Standards have helped Burlington envision streets as public spaces with many and varied opportunities for placemaking and creativity that are inherently part of the streetscape, rather than an add-on or after thought. In particular, including guidelines for the transformation of standard street furnishings into “custom streetscape elements” has helped our team understand that benches, planters, bicycle racks, crosswalks, and even parking spaces are part of our civic “canvas” that can be designed in such a way to showcase Burlington’s authenticity and creativity. This has been a particularly important opportunity for some of the engineers on our project team to see that public art doesn’t need to be a standalone object, but can be something that is truly integral to the streetscape itself.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The City is currently working on three major street reconstruction projects with three different professional design/engineering consulting teams. These Standards are helping to provide a foundation for clear and consistent conversations about the community’s expectations for how these streets will be transformed according to long-standing planning goals. Additionally, the standards are guiding a more efficient design development process, enabling the advancement of several major street reconstruction projects at the same time. Ultimately, these streets will be constructed from a similar palette of elements, providing a cohesive and unified public space that reflects the character of the community.

For the first time in Burlington, emphasis has been placed on a percent allocation for public art, which allows an additional layer of public engagement with a set of criteria built on Burlington’s unique identity through the public art review panel. Motivated in part by the aspirations of Great Streets, a percent for public art ordinance will be proposed in the next year for the City of Burlington. Further, a competitive process to solicit proposals for public art as part of these street reconstruction projects was incorporated into the design development process before final bid documents and construction.

These Standards have also been successful in that they have inspired designs for projects happening outside of the downtown core. Property owners and city officials have sought to replicate some of the principles of the Standards, advancing a higher level of design and incorporating some of the Standard elements into other projects as well. Professional design teams have been using the standards, and have provided feedback that it is a helpful and comprehensive resource, and have asked thoughtful questions about how it impacts designs that they’re working on.
How did you measure this success or progress?
The ultimate measure of success for the Great Streets Standards will be having multiple streets in the downtown core that were constructed at different times, designed by different professional teams, that all have a unified look that communicates the city’s character and values.

In many other communities, general economics and success of downtowns are positively impacted by the emphasis of the multi-modal, vibrancy, and sustainability goals that are central to these Standards. Long term, success will be measured by more widely distributed economic growth beyond the Church Street Marketplace, increased pedestrian and bicycle use, and the activation of streetscapes in parts of the downtown that are currently underutilized.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
In the community, people are interested in the development of Standards for their streets and neighborhoods, seeing the potential for reflecting the neighborhood character, sense of pride and investment to support neighborhoods’ economic well-being.
CCX Workshop Handout
Great Streets BTV (32.16 KB)