Renew and Modernize: Advocates Question the City’s Eviction of Sears Lane

On September 13, 2021 the Burlington Department of Public Works presented the Champlain Parkway Contract Amendment and South End Construction Coordination Plan. This came together with the release of the Federal Highway Administration’s updated 685-page environmental impact statement regarding the project. The plan outlined phases of the Champlain Parkway construction, including work that would pass through parts of the Sears Lane encampment in its effort to achieve “major renewal and modernization of the City’s South End infrastructure while reducing community impacts.” 

A month later in the City’s announcement that it would be evicting residents at the Sears Lane encampment, Mayor Miro Weinberger held that allowing the encampment to stand would be protecting “criminal activity,” but many advocates questioned the timing of the mayor’s announcement. The City had only taken two weeks to open and close a request for proposals (RFP) to manage the site for a year. COVID cases were still at record highs, and deadly cold was fast approaching.

Speculations have been circling as to whether or not the City was evicting residents in order to prepare for Champlain Parkway construction at Sears Lane. Construction on the part of the route that includes where some residents of Sears Lane had been living is set for Summer 2022 through early 2024.

Local advocate Ali Jafari posted an image from the 2019 PlanBTV South End Masterplan that shows a large building at the site of the current encampment, writing: “[T]his is what city is planning for Sears Lane, that’s why they are trying to kick the homeless out, and Miro is using this as an excuse to criminalize homelessness and say he is doing this because the camp is unsafe, using this opportunity to increase the Police force and brutalize the poor.” Other potential development of the site includes a residential proposal by Burlington entrepreneur Russ Scully.

"Activists shared this earlier, this is what city is planning for Sears Lane, that's why they are trying to kick the homeless out, and Miro is using this as an excuse to criminalize homelessness and say he is doing this because the camp is unsafe, using this opportunity to increase the Police force and brutalize the poor."

Activists have long fought the Champlain Parkway, which has been in the works since the 1960s, many arguing that it is an extension of transportation policy that has long disproportionately harmed BIPOC and low-income communities. Groups like the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, Pine Street Coalition, and Fortieth Burlington have been advocating for adjustments to be made to the project design, presenting their own “Champlain RIGHTway” that would mitigate the negative impacts to the Maple/King Street neighborhoods. In a letter to Governor Phil Scott in January, the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance stated that its proposal would decrease traffic congestion, ensure greater pedestrian safety, and fix the failed traffic configuration at Lakeside Avenue, all “without harm and injustice to the City’s cohesive Black and immigrant community.”

Tony Redington, a leader of the Pine Street Coalition and an urban walking safety advocate, is not convinced that City actions against residents at Sears Lane are related to the construction of Champlain Parkway. “Every year the mayor, the City, the Department of Public Works says, ‘Oh, parkway construction is going to start next year.’ They’ve been saying that since 2015,” he said, adding, “I would not be putting any money down on the start of construction next year.”

In fact, if things go Redington’s way, they will not be starting construction for another five or six years unless the plans are modified to prioritize the safety of Maple/King residents. The Pine Street Coalition, Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, and the Innovation Center (located on Lakeside Avenue) are continuing to pursue changes to the Champlain Parkway plan via the U.S. District Court. In terms of the timeline, Redington said, the Federal Highway Administration is set to release an revised environmental impact statement on the project by the end of this month. At that point, “there is a period of up to 30 days for those who disagree with the document to file a lawsuit, either as an amended complaint or a continuation of the current court case.” 

It’s been two years since Redington’s organization first sued to stop the construction of the Champlain Parkway. When the case is reopened, he said, they will seek an injunction on any construction until the court case is decided, which could be five or six years from now. 

Redington called the City’s refusal to meet with the coalition or make adjustments to the project plan “infuriating.” “[Weinberger] has refused to meet with us, and they haven’t changed a whisker of that design,” Redington said. “This whole process of opposition started with the Walk Bike Council starting about seven years ago, so they’ve literally stonewalled us for seven years.”

While Redington didn’t see the Champlain Parkway as the reason behind the Sears Lane eviction, he says the project poses a direct risk to its residents. “What’s safest for low-income people and BIPOC people are one, sidewalks; two, safe intersections, which is either all way stops or roundabouts; and three, provision for safe accommodation of bicyclists.” All modes of transportation should be treated equally to secure safety for those without access to cars, he says, calling the Champlain Parkway an example of “transportation apartheid.”In the meantime, for those in the community who are concerned about the negative impacts the Champlain Parkway might have on an area of our city in which 32% of residents don’t have access to a car, there’s still work to be done. Redington encourages folks to sign the RIGHTway petition and to stay tuned. “At the moment this is a petition and law process,” Redington said. “We have talked about some direct action, and that may occur, but we’re not at that point yet.”

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