Burlington has the best system of parks of any community in Vermont – 37 in all. The most popular of these is Waterfront Park. Battery Park has an interesting history because it was shelled by the British during the War of 1812 and it is the location where the Vermont Regiment practiced maneuvers they later used to crush Pickets Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It has fantastic views of Burlington harbor, Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. City Hall Park hosts the Burlington Farmers Market every Saturday morning during the summer where many people eat breakfast. All three of these parks are an easy walk from downtown hotels.
Burlington also has three great beaches on Lake Champlain connected by the Bike Path. But all three of these are beyond a comfortable walk from downtown hotels for most people. They are however easily reached by bicycle. They are from south to north Oakledge Park, North Beach and Leddy Park.
Waterfront Park is the newest addition to the Burlington Park system and is still being developed. It stretches from the western termination of College Street at the Boathouse north along the Lake Champlain shore for over a mile although the northern half is still relatively undeveloped. In addition to a boardwalk with swinging chairs where you can view the lake and the Adirondack Mountains, it features a large waterfront event space where there is almost always something going on all summer long on the weekends. See Burlington Events. The old Moran Generating Station is about to undergo a $33 million renovation into a multi-use public facility to enhance Burlington arts with display and event space, a restaurant, a microbrewery and a glass blowing shop. The Community Sailing Center is about to relocate to a brand new building with enhanced facilities as well. Waterfront Park is also the home of Burlington’s new Skate Park.
But perhaps the most amazing thing about Waterfront Park is its incredible metamorphosis from an industrial wasteland maintained by the railroads for over one hundred years into the beautiful 40 acre park you will find there today over the past 25 years. In the early 1980s three plans by developers emerged to convert the old rail yards north of College Street to hotels and condominiums. The first two proposals quickly failed but the third proposal by renowned architect, Benjamin Thompson, who had designed Baltimore Harbor, South Street Seaport in New York City and Faneuil Hall in Boston received overwhelming support from most city politicians including Mayor Bernie Sanders and twelve out of thirteen City Councilors in 1983. Even Howard Dean supported the Alden Plan.
The Alden Plan called for a 200 room seven story hotel twenty five feet from the lake’s edge just north of College Street, 300 luxury condominiums, a 1,200 car parking structure, 185,000 square feet of office space and 65,000 square feet of shops on what today is Burlington’s Waterfront Park. Fortunately a young attorney fresh out of Georgetown Law School working with interns from UVM uncovered the so-called Public Trust Doctrine which says that the bed of the lake belongs to all the people of the State of Vermont and must be preserved for public uses. Forty acres of land was created in Burlington harbor by filling in the lake with sawdust and trimmings from saw mills located there in the 19th century. See Burlington History. Attorney Rick Sharp argued that this land could not be turned over to developers for hotels and condominiums under a little known concept of law called the Public Trust Doctrine. Citing an 1892 U.S. Supreme Court opinion over the Chicago waterfront, Sharp argued the City should reclaim the industrial wasteland there under the Public Trust Doctrine and convert it to park space instead.
A two thirds majority was required to pass a six million dollar bond necessary to complete the Alden development project. A small group of opponents lead by Sharp including City Councilman, Paul Lafayette, former City Councilman, Maurice Mahoney, attorney and activist Sandy Baird and political activist Bea Bookchin, managed to hold the majority to 54% and the bond failed on December 10, 1985. An interesting video by CCTV of a public information session sponsored by these opponents eight days before the Alden vote on December 2, 1985 recently emerged on YouTube. Check it out. The City then pursued the public trust doctrine to the Vermont Supreme Court which agreed with Sharp thus preserving the filled land in Burlington Harbor for public uses forever and resulting in the 40 acre park we all enjoy today.
Today the Bike Path, Waterfront Park and the Church Street Marketplace are the most important physical features of downtown Burlington, attracting thousands of visitors to our city annually. Visitors wishing to stay in hotels downtown has led to the explosive growth of hotel rooms downtown over the past decade and a building boom in hotels that the city will not likely experience again for another 200 or 300 years, if ever.