Burlington singer Kat Wright sings at a drive-in performance

Burlington singer Kat Wright sings at a drive-in performance hosted by Higher Ground at the Champlain Valley Exposition on June 21.

As live performances continue on digital stages during the COVID-19 pandemic, Burton and Higher Ground are progressing on a deal that would see the concert venue move to Burlington

The change would move Higher Ground to the Burton campus on Queen City Park Road. But neighbors in the Queen City Park area are hopeful Burton will hear their concerns about the project – and make changes.

On July 7, the Burlington Development Review Board will hear Burton’s proposal to create an 11,560-square-foot performing arts center within an existing 85,000 square

Burton shared its intent to move forward with its “Community Hub” during a Ward 5 Neighborhood Planning Assembly meeting on June 17. The company had already submitted a conditional use application for the venue on April 30.

The idea was born about two years ago and proposes a vibrant, indoor, space with food, music, an indoor skate park and more, to Burlington’s South End.

In June 2019, Burlington City Councilors approved zoning changes in the South End that paved the way for projects this. Formerly, performance were venues to Pine Street, and capped at 5,000 square feet.

Burton’s project has drawn concern from Queen City Park neighbors, who live in a quiet area near the South Burlington/Burlington city line.

They are worried about the scale of the proposed venue and its effects on the neighborhood.

In January, the neighbor group – known as Citizens for Responsible Zoning – unsuccessfully appealed a Burton permit for stormwater and parking improvements at its Queen City Park campus. The Burlington Development Review Board denied their appeal in a 4-1 vote.

Laurie Smith, one of the neighbors, said the group is not against Burton or its vision. But they do believe the scale of the current proposal is inappropriate for that area of the city.

They worry about the traffic and noise that will come as a result of concert-goers entering and exiting the venue. The concert venue could see upwards of 500 cars coming and going as late as 2 a.m., Smith said. The neighbors are also concerned about safety, having shared worries about drivers navigating a one-lane bridge in the area as they enter and leave the venue, and of inebriated concert goers entering Red Rocks Park and cliff diving.

Then there’s the noise.

“You’ve got people all around in the summertime, in the spring and in the fall asleep with their windows open. And all of a sudden there are motorcycles and Hot Rods and the noise of cars unlocking, car alarms going off and all the associated disruption that happens when 1,500 people leave the venue,” Smith said.

The proposed venue would open as early as 7 p.m. and could operate until 2 a.m. with a maximum of 1,500 people.

Burton has conducted both noise and traffic studies, both of which show no significant impact as a result of the facility, said Justin Worthley, senior vice president of human resources at Burton. The company has also consulted Burlington and South Burlington’s police, fire, electric and public works departments about the proposal, Worthley said.

As for the one-lane bridge, Worthley said Burton and Higher Ground have a plan to monitor traffic there for 10 events and adjust as needed, perhaps with flaggers or stop signs on both sides of the bridge. Burton’s operational plan also includes a measure to “monitor and direct vehicle and pedestrian traffic to exit the area smoothly, including preventing nonresident traffic from entering Central Avenue and the Red Rocks Park area.”

Questions about the studies will be addressed during the Development Review Board process, Smith said; adding it doesn’t make sense to ask people exiting a “fun-loving concert” to be quiet as they leave.

Citizens for Responsible Zoning believes a maximum of 750 people with events ending at 10 p.m. might be more acceptable, Smith said. The group has met with Burton multiple times to discuss.

“They’ve done a very good job of listening and hearing our concerns and saying, ‘Oh, yes, we understand that.’ But they have made no changes in their plan as a result of those conversations,” Smith said. “Though I believe that you speak to them they would say otherwise.”

Worthley said the company has altered “tons” of its plans following conversations with the neighbors, and has created an “Operational Management Plan” detailing how it will handle pre, during and post-event happenings.

But requests limiting capacity and operating hours would “kill the project,” Worthley said. One of the main drivers for a Higher Ground move is to attract larger bands. Higher Ground is an important partner, and the main focus of Burton’s Community Hub, Worthley said.

“They’re projecting less than 20% of their shows are going to be full capacity the majority are going to be 1,000 or fewer people. And there will be very few shows that will go late into the evening, past midnight, like maybe two or three, the vast majority of shows are going to be done by 11p.m.,” Worthley said.

Higher Ground plans to host events 100-120 nights per year, he added.

“Our group is feeling like the intention of Burton and Higher Ground is good, but their actions don’t meet the intention. They make it sound as though they want to really work with us, but they have done very little to change and modify their plans.” Smith said.

Hubbub around the Hub

In 2007 Burton bought a warehouse next to its existing headquarters, and originally planned to use the space for expansion.

After the 2008 recession hit, space needs changed. The company was able to move into part of the warehouse in 2010, but the rest stayed vacant. The unused part of the building was leased to manufacturing company General Dynamics, until 2014.

Afterwards, Burton sought another manufacturing business to rent the space – to no avail.

“That’s what really led us down this path to try to find a complement of mixed uses that we could bring in to really create an amazing sort of community hub destination; a place to experience our brand, our culture,” Worthley, said.

The concept includes an indoor food court, museum/tour of Burton, Burton research and development space, an indoor skatepark, a headquarters for the Chill Foundation nonprofit and Higher Ground.

The indoor skatepark received a conditional use permit in 2019; all other sites are permitted under current zoning laws save for the concert venue.

Though the project started before the death of Burton founder Jake Burton, it’s now being pursued in his honor, Worthley said.

“This is going to be a cool way to really represent vocally many of the things that, you know, Jake really cared about.” he said.

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