The Church Street Marketplace was built in 16 months, in 1980-81, after being first conceived in 1958. In 1971 and 72 they held street fairs on Church Street, and diverted traffic around four blocks of the street to accommodate pedestrian-only traffic as an experiment to see how viable the idea of a pedestrian mall might be. Fairly successful, I would say, because Church Street has been a tourist and local destination since the 80’s, and images of Church Street are the most often used images to define Burlington in an image.
Go ahead, do an image search for “Burlington VT” and see how many pictures you need to scroll past to find a picture that isn’t Church Street.
Designed by the same people who created Boulder, Colorado’s “Pearl Street Mall” the Church Street Marketplace is four blocks of storefronts and restaurants, coffee shops and taverns exclusively accessible by pedestrian traffic. There are trees strung with lights, classical music emitting from speakers competing with the music and sounds of street performers, and plenty of benches to sit and do some people watching.
I always enjoyed Church Street, and I still occasionally like to take a walk up the street after dark to enjoy the visuals, or to sit and have a bagel and a coffee and occasionally indulge in a little street photography. One thing I want to mention, speaking of sitting on the street and having coffee, there are no public bathrooms on Church Street, or anywhere downtown for that matter. Sure, there are a few businesses that have bathrooms but they don’t want you to use them. This makes it a little less fun to sit and have coffee if you know what I mean!
There was to be a grand re-reopening of the now vacant shopping mall, into a 15-story multi-purpose block of buildings, but the developers only had enough financing to knock everything down and dig a foundation hole in the ground, what locals un-lovingly refer to as “The Pit,”, then they fenced up the area and left, no progress has been made for years now. So downtown Burlington has a bit of an unhealed wound, and it has affected local businesses. Then Covid came, and many stores have closed. More than I’ve ever seen at one time. Normally the vacancy rate on Church Street has always been well below 10%, but we’re in transition. We’re waiting. There has been progress in talking about what they plan to build there, I believe it’s mostly apartments in the present plan. Developers love making apartment buildings around here, they are guaranteed to make a profit in this town with 1,700-dollar efficiency apartments and low available housing stock. This lack of affordable housing ensures that downtown Burlington will put our homelessness problem on full display. To put it bluntly, Burlington is a city designed primarily for people with deep pockets, by other people with deep pockets, and none of them are interested in changing that.
In the meantime, once the weather warms and the sun comes out, people come down to Church Street to do some shopping or to sit at an outdoor restaurant or cafe. There are many good places to eat and drink, almost all of them unique and local to the area. Not a single Olive Garden or IHOP down here. As for the shops, however, national and international chains are slowly taking over. When I first moved to Burlington it was predominantly locally-owned shops, many of which were really interesting, but it’s been getting more corporate in the past decade or so. Still there are a good number of local businesses and unique shops that make it worth the trip (so long as you don’t need to pee).
It will be interesting to see what happens over the next several years. Church Street has gone through a number of changes over the past 40 years, and it feels like we’re on the cusp of another one of those.