Main Streets 2017: Vermont
In 1971, city leaders in Burlington tried an experiment: they closed four blocks of Church Street, the main shopping avenue for Vermont’s lakeside city, to vehicle traffic. Would people still come to the stores?
It turns out they did. That led to a decade-long effort, finally completed in 1981, to convert Church Street, as it gently rises toward the white-steepled 1816 Unitarian-Universalist church at its top, into a permanent outdoor pedestrian mall. Even though the great majority of similar outdoor malls around the U.S. that have opened since the late ‘60s have since been closed or converted back to regular traffic, Church Street Marketplace is an ongoing story of success.
With a 97 percent occupancy rate in the shops along its brick-paved, four-block path, the Marketplace is home to 63 specialty stores, several national retailers and 26 pubs and eateries, according to the American Planning Association, which calls this one of America’s great public spaces.
“The Marketplace also hosts 20 food and retail cart vendors and issues permits to more than 200 street performers annually,” the APA reports. Along the cross streets to the west, views show the glories of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains, memorably backlit by evening sunsets.
Each year some three million Vermonters and visitors come to the Marketplace to shop and enjoy its restaurants and cafes, with ample outdoor seating in the warmer months. Major annual events on the Marketplace start each February with the Magic Hat Mardi Gras Parade, sponsored by a creative local brewery.
During the city’s 10-day Discover Jazz Festival in June, world-renowned performers, area favorites and even high school bands appear in venues up and down the Marketplace, and at the art deco Flynn Theatre at the base of Church Street. The Festival of Fools brings street performers, musicians and comedians here in August — and the evening after Thanksgiving, hundreds fill Church Street to see the illumination of more than 200,000 white holiday lights.
Like almost all downtowns, Church Street has its challenges. The Burlington Town Center, an enclosed shopping center with its entrance halfway up the Marketplace, has struggled to keep tenants, and the city is considering a controversial plan for a high-rise redevelopment at the site.
But as Vermont’s most atmospheric, appealing destination for shoppers, diners and strollers, Church Street itself continues to prosper.
All photos courtesy of Church Street Marketplace