Gowntown Development: UVM Wants to Build Dorms on Its Trinity Campus. Would That Ease Burlington’s Housing Crisis? | Housing Crisis | Seven Days
In Burlington, the fight to lease an apartment or buy a home is fierce. In the small city, the economic center of Vermont, locals compete against hordes of coeds at the University of Vermont and Champlain College. Some of those students have wealthy parents and education loans that give them an edge in the rental market. Others are simply trying to pay less than they would for a campus dorm room and are willing to pack into apartments with several rent-sharing friends.
At UVM, which enrolls 11,000 undergraduates to Champlain’s 2,100, first-years and sophomores must live on campus, but juniors and seniors are free to move into neighborhood homes that families or long-term renters might otherwise occupy. Certain streets have become synonymous with student housing, which has reduced the supply of homes for long-term residents and driven up rental costs citywide. The pandemic has only increased the competition for housing and pushed high prices ever upward.
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Recent listings on Zillow detail the damage: A one-bedroom pad on Park Street costs $1,800 a month, no utilities included. A studio apartment on Pearl Street, just 461 square feet, is $1,700. At least it has air conditioning.
A new plan may provide some relief. UVM has proposed a multibuilding development on its 21-acre Trinity Campus. Once a small Roman Catholic college for women that closed in 2000, the Colchester Avenue campus is now home to nearly 600 students. UVM’s plan would add 400 undergraduate beds, 120 graduate student apartments and a new dining hall.
Since the university completed its last student housing project, in 2017, its enrollment has shot up. That’s prompting concerns from neighbors and city officials that the new units at Trinity would be used for the overflow, and those folks would ultimately move off campus, too. Instead of easing Burlington’s housing crisis, they worry: Would this new development exacerbate it?
No, say UVM brass. They’ll need to convince plenty of skeptics to make the university’s proposal a reality.
The build-out requires an easing of city zoning restrictions on how high and close to Colchester Avenue the buildings could be — changes that have the support of Mayor Miro Weinberger and other city officials. The planning commission will likely discuss the request this summer, and a council vote is expected later this year. UVM’s Board of Trustees still has to vet the proposal.
“We know we play a big part in the population of Burlington,” Wendy Koenig, UVM’s director of federal and state relations, told residents at a Wards 1 and 8 Neighborhood Planning Assembly meeting in February. “We definitely have a role in helping to solve this problem.”
Vermont’s housing crisis has hit Burlington particularly hard. As of last week, there were only nine single-family homes for sale, and most were listed on Zillow for a half-million dollars or more. Surging prices have trapped potential buyers in rentals, driving demand for apartments even higher. National experts say a 5 percent vacancy rate is healthy, but in Burlington and Winooski it’s just 0.6 percent, according to South Burlington real estate firm Allen, Brooks & Minor.
Burlington has taken steps to boost the housing supply, with mixed results. In 2020, city councilors approved zoning changes to encourage the construction of accessory dwelling units — essentially small apartments — on single-family lots. Late last year, Weinberger announced a 10-point housing plan that includes rezoning the Trinity Campus and a section of the city’s South End where housing is currently prohibited. But an effort to regulate short-term rentals, leased on sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, has come up short. In March, Weinberger vetoed a council plan that would have mostly restricted short-term rentals to the host’s permanent residence, leaving the units largely unregulated. A council committee is vetting a new proposal.
But as long as Burlington is a college town, it’s a landlord’s market — and will stay that way until UVM feels compelled to alleviate the problem. To date, the city has had little luck convincing UVM to do its part. The university, which enrolls 700 more undergrads today than it did a decade ago, signed an agreement with Burlington in 2009 to build one new housing unit for each additional undergrad student. And while UVM generally met that goal, the agreement lapsed in 2019, and the university has refused to negotiate a new one.
In 2015, Weinberger set a goal for the two colleges to build 1,500 new student beds by July 2020. Champlain created 715 beds; UVM just 325, city data show.
Richard Cate, UVM’s chief financial officer, defended the school’s housing record and said the Trinity project would help address the long-standing issue.
“It’s not going to cure the problem,” he conceded. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
The city estimates that upwards of 3,400 students from the two schools live off campus. Longtime Burlington residents say they see a growing impact in their neighborhoods.
Keith Pillsbury, a former Burlington school commissioner, has lived on University Terrace, near UVM’s Athletic Campus, for 48 years. When he and his wife first moved there, the dead-end street was populated with families and young couples. Now he estimates that 50 undergrads live there. Pillsbury says students in at least one house are openly flouting a city ordinance that bars more than four unrelated adults from living together, a legal standard set in 2000 to crack down on students who were overcrowding living quarters.
Pillsbury supports the Trinity plan and thinks UVM needs to build even more housing.
“This is an issue about priority of the limited housing we have,” he said. “Who gets to use it?”
Recently elected City Councilor Ali House (P-Ward 8) understands the frustration. She graduated from UVM last weekend and still lives in a student neighborhood. House said juniors and seniors would live on campus if UVM provided affordable options, but without them, students pack into subpar apartments downtown. It’s time UVM stepped up, House said.
“This housing crisis is impacting everybody negatively, except for UVM,” she said. “They continue to profit while the entire city is … left to grapple with the fallout.”
Here We Grow Again
Sam Nylen’s first-year dorm room was cramped. It was built for two students, but UVM squeezed in three. Nylen lofted his bed so his desk could fit underneath; his roommates slept on bunk beds, their desks jigsawed on the remaining floor space. The three young men shared two closets.
Last academic year, UVM housed 5,452 students on campus, 15 percent of them in triples, the university said. Student newspaper the Vermont Cynic reported in April that more students will be placed in the dreaded forced triples as enrollment grows.
And more students are on the way. This spring, a record-breaking 30,000 undergrads applied to UVM, which expects to admit almost 3,000 students this fall in what could be its largest first-year class ever.
Nylen, who will be a second-semester junior in the fall, is already feeling the pinch. He’s found it increasingly difficult to sign up for certain classes. The demand was so high for one course last semester that the professor expanded the class size from 40 students to 119. Nylen, who was a Cynic staffer at the time, penned an editorial demanding that UVM stop over-admitting students. He told Seven Days in a recent interview that the housing situation is untenable.
“If they want to keep welcoming larger class sizes, I think they really do need to be very explicit and transparent with their future housing plans,” Nylen said.
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But beyond confirming that UVM doesn’t have a housing plan, school officials have been anything but open about the university’s long-term vision for growth. Through a spokesperson, UVM president Suresh Garimella declined multiple requests to speak to Seven Days for this story and instead provided a statement that said the university “seeks to be part of the solution” when it comes to housing. Two members of UVM’s Board of Trustees — including state Rep. Carol Ode (D-Burlington) — wouldn’t answer questions because, they said, only board chair Ron Lumbra is authorized to speak to the media. And although Lumbra did agree to an interview, the Westchester County, N.Y., resident said he can’t assess UVM’s impact on the housing market since the university is just one piece of the puzzle. Burlington’s housing crisis has worsened, Lumbra said, but UVM isn’t to blame.
“There’s something going on more broadly,” he said. “There’s a lot to learn in terms of: What are the drivers? How can UVM help? What would help look like from us?”
Lumbra also dismissed the speculation that building on Trinity is part of a plan to boost enrollment. He said it would be a “dangerous strategy” for UVM to bank on the premise of recruiting more students due to the declining number of high school graduates in New England. A recent report from the New England Board of Higher Education projects a 25 percent decline in college enrollment in the region from 2025 onward.
Given the impending demographic cliff, “there’s not an explicit strategy to increase the student body,” Lumbra said. “That’s not what we’re trying to do.”
And yet, Lumbra’s assurances appear to run counter to the university’s own narrative. A press release from UVM earlier this month stated that the school had started recruiting outside of New England to address this very demographic shift. Nearly half of this fall’s incoming class will be from other regions — a total 13 percent higher than last year’s, the statement said.
Garimella has also talked up enrollment. In the fall of 2019, he announced the first of what would become four consecutive years of tuition rate freezes, saying UVM would make up for lost revenue in part by enrolling more graduate and transfer students — neither of whom are guaranteed on-campus housing. (In addition to its undergrads, UVM enrolls about 1,600 grad students and 500 med students.) In 2020, Garimella indicated that Vermont’s relatively low number of COVID-19 cases could boost enrollment as parents looked for safe places to send their children.
Mayor Weinberger says he appreciates the effort to make higher education more affordable but is keeping a wary eye on the student body’s growth. UVM enrolled a record 10,929 undergrads last fall, close to 350 more than the year prior.
“If they are going to continue to grow, given the housing pressures we face, they need to be building housing to accommodate all that growth,” Weinberger said. “I’m going to do everything I can to work with them, support them and ensure we don’t go backwards.”
Todd Schlossberg, for one, wants the mayor to be more aggressive. He’s lived on student-heavy Loomis Street since 1992 and was excited to hear about the Trinity plan at the NPA meeting in February. But his hopes sank when UVM officials said the dorms wouldn’t be reserved for juniors and seniors.
Schlossberg grilled the officials: Would UVM publicly commit to capping enrollment if the city approved its zoning request? If the dorms wouldn’t be for juniors and seniors, how would the project actually help the housing crisis?
Officials dodged his first question and, on the second, answered that Trinity would have room for some juniors and seniors. Schlossberg wasn’t impressed. He wants the city to only grant the permit if UVM commits to housing juniors and seniors at Trinity.
There’s precedent in Burlington for such a quid pro quo: In 1989, the city approved UVM’s application for a new microbiology building on the condition that it also provide more on-campus housing and parking.
“It’s not a tough issue,” Schlossberg said. “They want this. We have control.”
Weinberger said Schlossberg’s suggestion may not be legal. But he said the city is exploring other possible permit conditions to ensure that “UVM is doing its part,” such as requiring the school to provide a master plan for the Trinity parcel, undergo a parking management study or commit to sharing more data about how many students live off campus. Weinberger has been unhappy with how little detail UVM has disclosed in the past, he said.
“You put all those things and some other ideas together, and I think the city will have some regulatory enforcement power,” he said.
Burlington planning commissioner Emily Lee thinks it’s worth trying to negotiate UVM’s permit; she lives on Bradley Street, in a student neighborhood. But she’s also skeptical about how much leverage the city actually has. Prior city administrations have been unable to force UVM’s hand, Lee said, “and I’m not sure anybody wants to make it difficult for UVM to build housing.”
An expansive, sloping lawn welcomes visitors to the 21-acre Trinity Campus, across Colchester Avenue from the Masala Elaichi Indian restaurant. Widely recognizable Mercy and McAuley halls squat closest to Colchester Avenue — modernist style buildings constructed by Trinity College that today house more than 300 students. Out back, out of view from Colchester Avenue, five low-profile dorms are nestled among the trees.
The geology department, UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and a third academic building are also on the campus. And the defunct college’s first dorm, known as St. Joseph’s Villa, contains UVM’s Event Services office; it would be torn down as part of the redevelopment.
The Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic nuns, founded Trinity College in 1925. Its first class convened with just 20 women, a mix of nuns and laypeople, most of whom lived at the Mount St. Mary’s convent on nearby Mansfield Avenue. Five students that year, known as “dayhops,” boarded with local families off campus.
This arrangement became commonplace as the college’s enrollment grew in the 1930s and ’40s, according to A History of Trinity College: 1925-1975, by author Stephen Roth. In an observation that still resounds today, he wrote that students were “literally housed all over the city, which was a complication for everyone.”
Trinity constructed McAuley Hall in 1958; the dorm was soon full and there was a long waiting list to get in, according to Roth. Trinity’s expansion continued into the 1970s, when the five dorms on the back lot were built.
The state’s only women’s college, Trinity offered a robust liberal arts education to more than 5,000 students over the years, many from traditionally underserved populations. The college held weekend and evening classes for adult students, started classes for developmentally disabled learners and offered scholarships to single mothers who otherwise couldn’t have pursued higher education. Many students were the first in their family to attend college.
After peaking in the 1980s, enrollment dropped and left the college strapped for cash. Trinity tried desperately to survive: It trimmed course offerings, rented out its buildings and even got backing from an investor. But a renewed recruitment effort in 1999 was unsuccessful, and Trinity had a budget shortfall that far exceeded its endowment.
“It is just a bigger hill than we can climb,” the college’s president, Sister Jacqueline Marie Kieslich, told the Burlington Free Press at the time. Trinity College closed in September 2000.
But the land was valuable. As developers showed interest in buying it, the city began a rezoning process that resulted in the setback, density and height rules that UVM is now seeking to change. City leaders told the Free Press in February 2002 that the new bylaws would help the Sisters of Mercy sell the property, ideally to a buyer who would preserve the surrounding neighborhood’s quality of life.
Four months later, lightning struck the sandstone cross atop a Trinity academic building, shattering it. Some wondered if it was an omen.
Prophetic or not, there was a change in the works: UVM purchased Trinity that fall for $14.3 million.
Nancy Kirby can point out every home on Colchester Avenue that’s been converted to a student rental since she moved to the area in 1975. Over the years, she’s made efforts to get to know the rotating cast of characters at the one next door.
When the heat in the student rental stopped working a few winters back, Kirby let the young tenants sleep next to her woodstove for three nights until their landlord finally responded. She loans tools from her expansive collection to the six students who live there now.
But Kirby also resents UVM for encroaching on her neighborhood, which she says has become more desirable to students the more the university’s enrollment has grown. In January 2021, a couple from out of state knocked on her door at 339 Colchester Avenue and offered Kirby $625,000 in cash for her house. Their two sons hoped to attend UVM, they said.
“I told them to get the eff off my porch,” Kirby said.
On an unseasonably warm day this month, Kirby walked down her street with a measuring tape in hand, past porches full of students enjoying their last week of freedom before final exams. A few hundred yards away, undergrads lounged on the Trinity Campus lawn.
Kirby stopped there, walking the measuring tape 25 feet from the edge of the sidewalk. She looked up.
“Those big buildings are going to be right where those people are sitting,” she said, dejected. “This is going to destroy that green space.”
Indeed, UVM is planning a 120-bed apartment complex for graduate students where Kirby stood. A multiwinged addition to Mercy and McAuley halls would accommodate 400 undergrads in traditional dorm rooms. UVM would also demolish the former St. Joseph’s Villa dormitory but leave the five smaller dorms on the rear of the lot untouched. The campus would also get a new cafeteria, though plans don’t specify where.
The proposal requires a three-pronged zoning change. Under the current rules, structures must be built 115 feet from the Colchester Avenue property line. UVM’s proposal would cut this distance to 25 feet. Building heights would be capped at 45 feet at the front of the lot and 80 feet elsewhere, compared to the current max of 55 feet. And while UVM is only allowed to develop 40 percent of the lot, the proposal calls for a 60 percent allowance.
Some nearby residents worry that dense development would erase the neighborhood feel and aggravate “town-gown” tensions. Others question whether juniors and seniors, should there be room for them, would even want to live on campus. And students are skeptical that the new dorms would be affordable.
Former city councilor Sharon Bushor has lived a short walk from Trinity since 1972. In the late 1980s, she advocated for UVM to house sophomores on campus, a change the university made in 1990. She was also involved in the Neighborhood Project, an initiative to address quality-of-life issues in student areas.
Bushor said she isn’t opposed to developing Trinity but thinks the proposed buildings would be too tall and too close to the road. And she’s frustrated that UVM hasn’t presented a long-term vision for Trinity before requesting a zoning change.
“It doesn’t feel like a well-thought-out plan, and that is the concern of the neighborhood,” Bushor said. “What we’re asking for is quality development, just like you get with any project.”
Todd Spellman lives on East Avenue, the same street where he rented an apartment after graduating from UVM in 2000. He shares Bushor’s concerns about the project’s scale and said that by constructing traditional dorms, UVM is missing an opportunity to build attractive housing for juniors and seniors. He said the school should consider building something like the privately owned and managed Burlington Co-housing East Village off East Avenue, a 32-unit development of townhomes, apartments and single-family homes that has a communal kitchen, workshop and meeting space. Students would prefer a living situation such as that over “a dump on Greene Street,” Spellman said.
“UVM is an octopus on the hill that reaches their tentacles into the neighborhoods more and more,” he said. “They have a chance to step up and do the right thing, and they’re not.”
Pressed to build more housing for juniors and seniors, UVM officials are quick to say that those students don’t want to live on campus. The numbers bear it out: More than 70 percent of those surveyed in 2019 said they wouldn’t consider living on campus “under any circumstances.”
But David White thinks UVM relies too heavily on such data. White, who served as the city’s planning director for 14 years before leaving in November 2021 to start his own consulting firm, said juniors and seniors would choose on-campus housing with amenities that provide a sense of independence.
“You can have some pretty nice units that look, feel, function just like market-rate units but are actually provided by the institution,” White said. “More and more students would find that actually living close to and even on campus could be pretty desirable.”
UVM alumnus and City Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) agreed. Many students enjoy living downtown, but UVM’s only on-campus housing reserved for juniors and seniors is also extremely popular, he said. The Redstone Lofts and Redstone Commons — managed by the private development firm of the same name, on land leased from UVM — have been historically full every year.
But the rent is out of reach for some students. Units in both developments run from $850 to $1,750 a month per bedroom. A traditional two-bedroom at the Lofts, a 400-bed complex on UVM’s Athletic Campus, costs each student $1,185 per month.
Cadence Shuman, who just completed her senior year at UVM, couldn’t afford to stay on campus, though she wanted to. This past year, she paid $850 a month for her room in a two-bedroom rental on Cliff Street.
Nylen, the former Cynic staffer, now pays $740 a month for a spot in a five-bedroom house on North Street; next month, he and two roommates will move to Pearl Street and pay $650 each. Both he and Shuman said juniors and seniors would consider on-campus housing if it were comparably priced.
“That would be a really attractive thing,” Nylen said. “If the university and the City of Burlington really want to work together on the housing crisis … you want to offer your students a cheap place to live.”
University officials, however, say it’s not costlier to live on campus since off-campus renters often pay utilities in addition to rent. UVM facilities include amenities that apartments downtown lack, such as furnished rooms and public safety services. The Redstone Lofts have a fitness center and in-unit laundry.
Cate, UVM’s CFO, said even if more students vacate off-campus apartments, many other renters wouldn’t be able to afford what landlords currently charge students.
“If no UVM student lived downtown … it doesn’t mean it would open up hundreds of beds for low-income people,” Cate said, noting that a group of students can pool funds to afford expensive rent.
“It’s important that everybody try to understand what would happen if the students weren’t there,” he said. “I don’t think what people hope would happen would be the end result.”
City officials disagree and say that increasing student housing stock would drive down rental costs citywide. That happened in 2018, when Champlain College opened a 312-bed apartment complex on St. Paul Street at the site of the former Eagles Club. The new competition forced landlords to woo student renters by cutting prices, waiving deposits and even holding pizza parties.
Brian Pine, director of the city’s Community & Economic Development Office, acknowledged that landlords have based their rental business on the level of income they can expect from students. But he said rents would stabilize or decrease if college kids were a smaller part of the equation.
“It wouldn’t happen overnight, but it’s going to be about supply and demand. It comes down to some of those basic economic factors,” Pine said. “That’s why adding beds is so critical.”
Building Out Burlington
Mayor Weinberger knows that rezoning the Trinity campus alone won’t solve the city’s housing crisis. He’s proposed two other zoning reforms that he thinks would help: allowing residential growth in the city’s South End and encouraging denser development citywide.
The first of Weinberger’s ideas isn’t entirely new — and wasn’t popular the first time around. In 2015, Weinberger proposed allowing residential development in the South End’s enterprise district, the city’s primary industrial area, where many older buildings have been repurposed as artist and maker space. The idea generated intense backlash from people who feared that they’d be priced out of their studios or evicted if the spaces were converted into apartments. Ahead of that year’s South End Art Hop, a group of artists erected a cardboard shantytown titled “Miroville” to mock the mayor’s plans. He canned the proposal shortly afterward.
Burlington entrepreneur Russ Scully reprised the idea late last year with a request to rezone several vacant parcels for housing. Among them is a six-acre parking lot adjacent to his tech incubator, Hula, built in the former Blodgett oven factory on Lakeside Avenue. The planning commission has yet to act on Scully’s plan.
Weinberger was less specific about what he envisions.
“I’m looking for zoning that would take those massive parking lots and turn them into what we recognize as a walkable, bikeable, mixed-use neighborhood,” Weinberger said. “I do think we should allow multistory development there.”
Weinberger said the city is collecting public feedback on the concept and will present a more formal proposal later this year.
His second zoning effort is one to create “missing middle” housing, or smaller, affordable multiunit projects such as triplexes and townhomes that fit in existing residential neighborhoods. Such projects are effectively prohibited in Burlington because much of the city is zoned for single-family homes or is subject to restrictive building rules. The term “missing middle” has also been used to describe housing for people who earn too much to qualify for subsidized housing but still can’t afford to buy at market rates.
The mayor likened his multiunit “missing middle” effort to his recent push to build accessory dwelling units. Under rules passed in 2020, ADUs can be built without additional off-street parking and on lots that were previously deemed too small.
Weinberger said “missing middle” zoning could rapidly increase the city’s housing stock.
“We’ve got to find a way for this to be a citywide conversation and effort,” he said.
Weinberger has yet to firm up this proposal but said he will do so after a series of community meetings on the topic this year. The mayor said he hopes the council will approve both zoning reforms by mid-2023.
Councilor Hanson is on board and only wants the administration to move faster. He said Weinberger’s proposals work in concert with a zoning reform he introduced that would no longer require developers to build parking for their housing projects. Without the added cost of parking, developers could instead create more housing units. The city’s planning commission is vetting the language, which the council will vote on this summer.
“In general, making it easier to build housing throughout the city is critical,” Hanson said. “This ‘missing middle’ stuff? I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Weinberger is banking on the zoning changes to realize his goal of building 1,250 more housing units by the end of 2026. About a quarter of those would be permanently affordable, with some reserved for formerly homeless residents.
The city is working with nonprofit and private developers to meet the target. Some projects are already under construction, including a 32-unit complex on South Champlain Street and a 49-unit apartment building on upper Pine Street.
More are in the pipeline. The city recently modified an agreement with owners of the Cambrian Rise project on North Avenue to allow them to build 950 units there instead of the original 770. The Champlain Housing Trust is planning a 30-unit affordable apartment complex on South Winooski Avenue.
And then there’s CityPlace Burlington, the long-stalled downtown redevelopment of a former mall, which could add more than 400 apartments. It’s unclear, however, when or whether that project will finally break ground. If construction doesn’t begin by September, the developers must pay the cost of reconnecting St. Paul and Pine streets to the city grid instead of being reimbursed by tax-increment financing funds. The two streets were severed when the former mall was built.
Pine, the CEDO director, said developers have already asked for an extension of that deadline. The city won’t entertain it unless the project team can show “substantial progress” toward construction, he said.
Weinberger is optimistic his plan will succeed. After years of talking about the need for housing, he’s pleased that so many organizations are on board to address it — including UVM. The mayor said despite his concerns about enrollment, he’s felt “an increased sense of urgency” from UVM to build more housing.
“The conversation we’re having now is very much aligned with where UVM wants to go,” Weinberger said. “That feels like a shift, and I’m hopeful we can make progress together.”