Sinex's “Cannibal Towers”
The New York owner of Burlington Town Center Donald Sinex forces the City to change its zoning for height so he can almost triple the floors without public benefit from about six floors to fourteen, from a 65 feet limit to 160 feet. The project featuring two fourteen-story towers might better be called “Cannibal Towers.” The project doubles the Mall retail space, adds 374 units of housing, and floors of office space. But much of Cannibal Towers success depends on the demise of similar existing development and population shift from other parts of the Chittenden County. In a word there is no rationale or market demand for a project the size Mr. Sinex pursues. Besides his development can be mostly accommodated without resort to changing our zoning, as he pointed out in an early interview. Of course no one really knows what Mr. Sinex is up to as no marketing study for the retail/office space/housing has been done by a responsible public agency.
Look at the current retail environment and population trends here. First retail, parricularly big box and malls nationally and in this area downsize faster than the number of land line phones. Sears nears bankruptcy and movement from stores to e-commerce has just begun. The University Mall is under water financially and we can expect even Williston big-box retail to begin to wilt. Therefore, no need to double the space of a now half empty Town Center mall! Simply, Mr. Sinex can only fill his mall by forcing other area retailers holding “going out of business” sales. Mr. Sinex proposes a “vulture mall.”
The housing and commercial space cannibal aspect gets a little more complicated. But it comes down to the numbers of area residents in a fast changing demographic picture. Overall, the population under 65 age is shrinking. During the 2010-2030 period our County non-senior population declines by 5% (double digits in Vermont overall). College age population in Vermont drops 22% or down 8,000 which means lower and lower student numbers at UVM and other area colleges and training schools. At the same time our County and statewide seniors growth doubles—over 90,000 seniors added, more than double Burlington's population! During the 2010-2030 period our statewide population growth overall is likely 3-4% (from 2010 to 2015 Census estimates the State grew by a miniscule 300 or so residents).
So Mr. Sinex for both office space and for housing must look to draw from mostly other area towns' office space and housing there being no significant “growth” market here in the County, demographically speaking. For Mr. Sinex, the real opportunity may be just to build and then run away—cannibalizing is not an appetizing approach to “development”!