Melinda Moulton portrait by Randolph T Holhut at Main Street Landing, Burlington, Vermont, October 2019.
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine The City of Burlington is defined by its waterfront, and its waterfront is defined by the work of Melinda Moulton.
Moulton has restored, built or rebuilt some of the waterfront’s most iconic structures, including a stunning restoration of the 1916 Union Station at the foot of Main Street. All the while, she has been proving that you can do well by doing good — really.
However, life sometimes circles ‘round and bites you on the butt. Long an outspoken champion of commuter rail, Moulton is now fighting the railroads to preserve her legacy.
Moulton, 69, is the CEO and co-founder of Main Street Landing, which is owned by her business partner and co-founder, Elizabeth “Lisa” Steele.
Melinda Moulton, Michelle Obama and Lisa Steele. Courtesy photo.
“Lisa is the owner and the president of Main Street Landing,” Moulton explained. “She owns the company and the property. I am the CEO. We are both co-founders and have worked side by side for over 35 years together. Our motto for our work is ‘Two Women with a Vision Creating a Place for All People.’ Neither one of us could have done what we have done without the other.”
Since 1983, Moulton and Steele have created close to $30 million of built environment running alongside Lake Champlain. Their 25-year incremental redevelopment master plan has added 250,000-square-feet of office, retail, restaurant, apartment space plus a performing arts center to the downtown area while at the same time introducing a new, female-inspired development model with a healthy dollop of social justice.
“Our method of development was based on creating beautiful places for people to live, work, and play,” Moulton said. “We knew that if we built buildings that were beautiful, and healthy, and affordable to rent, that we would be successful. Our success depended on more than just financial return, although that worked out positive for us, too.”
The partners have a close working relationship; Moulton’s office is in Union Station and Steele works at home. They get together once a week to discuss the business.
“She was more active early on, when we were doing a lot of the building,” Moulton said. “But since 2005, it’s really been mostly managing the company, managing the leases. She doesn’t come into the office very often. My job is to protect her property and maintain the buildings and care for them and keep them full and generate an income and do good through the community. She’s involved and she’s a dear, dear friend.”
Main Street Landing manages about 100 leases, has a staff of eight and earns approximately $3 million a year in revenues. It owns and manages five buildings and has two more lots with growth potential.
Before there was Main Street Landing there were centuries of a working waterfront in Burlington, followed by a long period of advanced decline complete with homelessness and rats. That was followed by a string of ultimately failed development projects. When the dust settled, it turned out that Steele owned a lot of developable waterfront land and Moulton, who had been a back-to-the-land hippie when she first arrived in Vermont, was ready to turn herself into a developer.
In Moulton’s mythology of development, Burlington’s Main Street really begins on the coast of Maine.
“And it becomes Route 2,” Moulton explained, as she sat in her spacious office with views of the Lake and the Adirondacks beyond. “And then it becomes Williston Road and then Main Street. And all this energy from the ocean powers through this road until it comes barreling down Main Street and explodes at this building.”
You could say the same thing about the chic jackhammer that is Moulton. Congressman Peter Welch calls her “a gift to Vermont.”
He met her when he rented office space from her for his gubernatorial campaign in 1990, and he continues to know her through her involvement in progressive politics, especially women’s rights issues.
“Anyone involved in Vermont politics knows Melinda Moulton, whether they want to know her or not,” he joked.
Then, getting serious he said, “It’s hard to keep up with her. She’s had a sustained focus and effective career with green development at a crucial landscape. Green buildings and public access down at the waterfront are a legacy that she and Lisa should be proud of. You’ve got to deal with many different people and interests simultaneously, meanwhile getting plans approved, coordinating with contractors to keep the cost in budget, dealing with people who have competing views of what should be done. Melinda and Lisa took a decrepit railroad industrial waste site and turned it into something the whole state is proud of. It took skill and effort. She’s also been a major supporter and fierce advocate for women’s empowerment. She’s determined, vocal and persuasive as an advocate and a leader in the business community.”
Former governor and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean calls her a “powerhouse.” Others who have worked with her on development and social justice issues (she’s been on almost every board in Vermont’s non-profit world) speak of her “passion,” her “heart,” and her “soul.”
Governor Douglas cracks up Governor Dean, TJ Donovan and Melinda Moulton in this 2012 photo. Photo courtesy of the Lund Center.
The words “trailblazer,” “people connector” and “incredible force for good” are used frequently. These are not words normally associated with developers.
Yet NBC News once called her a “Fleecer of America” for her support of rail.
Blonde, smart, elegant, voluble, entertaining and dynamic, Moulton frequently lectures around the country on developmental and environmental issues as well as feminist concerns.
She has been a stalwart of Planned Parenthood for many years, sits on the board of PPNE, and co-chaired a 50th anniversary, $25 million fundraising campaign that exceeded its goal.
She was a founder of the 2017 Vermont Women’s March that brought 22,000 people to the Statehouse to fight for women’s rights — it was so big, it shut down the Interstate.
“It was a huge highlight of my life,” she says. This year she testified in favor of H57, the law that protects Vermonters’ rights to abortion.
Moulton describes her success as “the power of naïveté.”
“People, especially women, are afraid to do things because they don’t know if they can,” Moulton said. “But when I talk to women or mentor women, I say that if somebody opens the door, you’ve got to walk through. You may think that you don’t know how to do it. But if somebody has the faith in you, and thinks that you have the ability to do something, don’t second-guess yourself. Walk through the door! Give it your all! And I’ll bet you that 95 percent of the time you can do it. You’ll figure it out. I did. I figured it out.”
For figuring it out, Moulton was honored by the Burlington Business Association with the Nathan Harris Award in recognition of her contribution to the economic vitality of downtown Burlington.
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibilities gave her its honored Terry Ehrich Award.
Professionally, her development properties have won the Energy Star for Small Business Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Hertzel Pasackow Award for Architectural Excellence, the Chittenden County Historical Society Award, the Burlington Historic Preservation Association Award, the AIA Excellence in Architecture Wards, and a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver (LEED) Award from the US Green Building Council.
Moulton refers to herself as a back-to-the-lander who figured out the development business by herself, but she was born and raised to do what she has done.
“My father and his family for three generations were general contractors in Pennsylvania,” Moulton said. “They built office buildings, churches, and commercial buildings. My mother’s father was a residential builder who built many of the homes in the town she grew up in.”
Moulton learned building by osmosis, shadowing her father in his office and accompanying him to ribbon-cuttings. By the time she got to Vermont, she already had many of the tools she would need later in her life.
She was also by then a graduate of the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, which she entered when she was 17, getting an associate’s degree and learning how to run the most important offices in the land for some of the country’s most successful men.
“You had to wear a suit and a hat and gloves, and your hair had to be above shoulder length,” Moulton said wryly. “There was a sense of propriety in the way that you held yourself. We studied accounting and investing and all sorts of business courses. The beauty part of Katie Gibbs is they placed you in extraordinary positions. You would get a job as an administrative assistant to the president of big corporations or magazine editors. People wanted Katie Gibbs girls. The Gal Friday was always a Katie Gibbs girl. So after I finished school, I got a job at Harvard University.”
Like just about every Hallmark movie, love brought Moulton to Vermont. She met her future husband, award-winning filmmaker Rick Moulton, in Boston. The pair, inspired by the story of Scott and Helen Nearing, built their stone house by hand, stone by stone, in a high meadow in Huntington.
The couple have two children and four grandchildren. In Moulton’s spare time she plays piano and writes music.
“She’s very smart and she’s done a lot of wonderful things for the community,” said Governor Dean. “I know her well because she was a big force in revitalizing the waterfront. She seems to have this incredible drive. She’s really interested in social justice.”
Moulton was on the VBSR board from 2001 to 2017.
“She was always a voice on behalf of the environment,” said Jane Campbell, VBSR’s executive director. “Businesses create change. And Main Street Landing uses an approach that focuses on sustainability. She was an early voice for rail in Vermont, to cut back on some of the fossil fuels. She’s always been a proponent of downtowns. She’s always been a voice on behalf of women. Main Street Landing could have been developed in many ways, but it was the first LEED building. That’s unusual for a female developer. She’s been outspoken. When she talks in a room, people listen.”
Tom Torti, the president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, has known Moulton since the 1990s, when she was beginning to develop the waterfront and advocating for renewed train transportation.
“It was community sustainability through economic development,” Torti said. “Melinda brought heart, soul and passion to development in a sustainable way, a way that fit into the community. Even so long ago, she recognized that our reliance on fossil fuel was not going to be sustainable. And she has been proven right. Today we’re talking more and more about public transit and building commercial retail and residential in proximity. These ideas seem common and normal today, but they were a bit out of the norm back then. She’s absolutely a trailblazer. She went in a different direction and set a standard for how we think about urban development. She proved you can make money by doing things with people and place foremost in mind.”
Torti praised her mentoring abilities.
“She takes the time to give advice freely,” Torti said. “It’s easy to have a conversation with her. We may come at an issue differently and disagree, but we can do it without being disagreeable. It’s the kind of discourse we should be having in our public engagement. She seeks to understand someone else’s perspective, and we need more of that.”
“Everyone is welcome in Melinda’s universe” said John Killacky, former executive director of the Flynn Center in Burlington and a current member of the Vermont House of Representatives.
Killacky joined the Flynn in 2010.
“I found in Melinda the most supportive colleague,” he said. “She welcomed me. She was a collaborative colleague. She was someone who I could ask advice from. We became dear friends.”
Even though Moulton built a theater into one of her properties, Killacky never saw her as a competitor.
“We were not competitors but collaborators,” Killacky said. “If something was at the Flynn or at Main Street Landing, it was a win-win for both of us. The world was plentiful. We didn’t function from a scarcity mentality. Often things were scheduled the same night. Competition? None of that!”
Every winter Main Street Landing’s Performing Arts Center picks a nonprofit to benefit from its classic film series.
“One year they offered it to the Flynn,” Killacky said. “It was such a lovely example of her partnership. And I watched her weave that tapestry with the whole community. That is exemplary of her great leadership. I’ve been to her theatre many times for films, theater, memorial services and fundraisers. All those partners were embraced by Melinda.”
When Meagan Gallagher came to the presidency of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, she found Moulton already on the board.
“She helped me know New England,” Gallagher said. “She’s such an incredible force for good. She so deeply believes in people and in better places and in progress and peace and love. It’s amazing to watch her drive this agenda of love. She’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met before. She’s results-oriented. Her role in a group is to keep things moving forward. She burns with passion for reproductive rights and women’s ability to drive their own futures. You can’t help but want to go along with her.”
Sue Minter, former gubernatorial candidate and current executive director of Capstone Community Action, met Moulton in 1996 when they were working on train issues. Moulton went on to support Minter’s candidacy when she ran for governor in 2016, and even found a job for her once the election was lost.
“She’s an extraordinary person,” Minter said. “She’s a businessperson and a visionary. She brings others into her vision. I’m in awe of her ability to dream big and make big things happen.”
Moulton comes from Allentown, Penn., where her family’s roots stretch back 150 years. She is the third of four children.
Her mother was involved in theater.
“She studied acting in New York and she was the president of the Lyric Theater in the town,” Moulton said. “She belonged to a lot of community organizations. I remember as a child going around the neighborhood with an envelope to collect money for the Red Cross and for M.S.”
Moulton’s father was a successful general contractor. She said she believes she was his favorite child. He worked six days a week, and on Saturdays he would take her to the office with him.
“None of his employees would be there,” Moulton said. “He was able to catch up on his work. He taught me how to use the big accounting machines. And I learned how to use the phones. And I studied with him. I’d go to all of his estimating bidding meetings. I was pretty close to my dad and I watched him in his business.”
When she was 10 years old, Moulton’s parents divorced. Two years later her mother died.
“Then we went to live with my father and his new wife,” Moulton said. “I think if my mother had lived, I might have been a doctor or I might have continued to study music. She always saw the softer side of me — the arts and sciences — because that’s where my strengths were. But with her death, a lot of the dreams I had for my future kind of went out the window, because she was the one who encouraged me in those things. I think my father always saw me going into business — and maybe even contracting.”
Her father moved the family to a farm where he raised American Saddlebred horses, cows for beef and different kinds of birds.
“He was a gentleman farmer,” Moulton said. “I became a rider and showed Hunter class. I would go down with him to Kentucky and keep his breeding books. When it came time to go off to college, I really wanted to study medicine. And he said to me, ‘I want you to be able to always work, so that if anything ever happens to your husband, you can support yourself and your family.’ So he took me to New York City to the Pan Am building, and we went up to the floor where Katharine Gibbs was. We met with the school’s president.”
When she was 17, just out of high school, her father dropped her off in front of the Barbizon Hotel for Women on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.
In an era of student rebellion, even the proper Katherine Gibbs students were becoming a bit rebellious. One incident stands out for Moulton.
“It was after tea, and a bunch of us walked out of the building,” Moulton said. “Everything was quiet. There were policemen lined up on the street at every corner. We walked up to one of the policemen and I said, ‘What’s going on.’ And he said, ‘Look down the street towards Harlem. There are fires burning.’ He said, ‘Martin Luther King’s been murdered. You need to get back to the Barbizon.’ And I think in that moment something snapped inside of me. My activism took root. So I finished my year in New York and transferred to Boston. I wanted to be in a more hip town, and I felt like New York was kind of lonely and impersonal. So I forged my transfer papers and told my father that I was going to be going to Boston in the fall.”
New England Beckons
Moulton’s father was not happy about the venue change, but she held her ground and finished up her degree at Katherine Gibbs in Boston. The degree got her a job at Harvard University working for Mark Ptashme, an associate of Dr James Watson.
“I became Mark’s right-hand person,” Moulton said. “I worked for him for probably a year and a half, maybe two years. While I was there I started taking courses in finance and business and writing and the things that I just really wanted to study and be a part of. And that rounded out my education.”
Then friends introduced her to Rick Moulton.
“He was leaving for Europe and was gone that whole next winter,” she said. “I forgot about him. But I must have stuck in his head. He came back in the spring and we dated for probably a month before he asked if I would come to Vermont and live in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of his friends and just be with him.”
She said yes.
“I fell in love with him,” Moulton said. “I asked him why he came back to me and he said, ‘Because I knew you had potential.’ That life with him was off of the beaten path. It was not where my father wanted to see me go. But it was the Sixties movement. We moved to Vermont. We lived out in Westford with about 12 other people in this big farmhouse. I slept in a hammock in a sugar house and fell more and more in love with this man.”
In the fall, Rick decided to finish his degree at the University of Denver. Moulton went with him.
“We packed up my little Fiat sports Spider and drove out to Denver and rented a little house,” she said. “And that October, I became pregnant with my son. Eli was born at the University of Denver hospital and our doctor was Dr. Robert A. Bradley, the man who wrote the book on husband- coached childbirth. I had a very long birth. It was traumatizing. Dr. Bradley told me I was the worst patient he had ever had.”
Five months later, the couple moved back to Vermont to be closer to his family, who lived in Shelburne.
“We packed everything in a big moving truck — even put the car in it — and drove back to Vermont,” Moulton said. “We arrived on Christmas Eve to the surprise of his parents. They had no clue we were coming. It was like, ‘Hey! We’re here! Yay!’ And they announced that they were moving down to Florida in three months. And we were like, ‘Oh wow, that’s a big bummer.’ Because we wanted to be close to grandparents. But they were out of here. So we rented a house in Starksboro. Rick got a job at ETV and I got a job at the University Health Center, which was at that time about 12 employees.”
A New Job, A New House, A New Life
UHC was creating an administrative and financial arm, and Moulton was part of the team developing it.
“Folks like Bob Hoehle and Rich Tarrant were developing the billing; it was at the beginning of their career in the medical billing field,” Moulton said. “They were testing everything out on UHC. I got a job working as the administrative assistant for the director of financial administration and the director of operations — two men. I went for that interview in my overalls with my son on my back and they hired me. That’s what I’m saying about Katie Gibbs. I always got the job.”
Moulton loved the work.
“All the departments’ doctors now had to be under the umbrella of the UHC for all of their billing, all of their collections, and all of their customer service,” Moulton said. “And I was the right-hand person. It was an exciting career and an education. I was there for probably three or four years, but I wanted to have another child. And I couldn’t get pregnant because it was such an intense job. And my husband’s working as a lighting director at Vermont ETV, and we were living in a farmhouse.”
The couple then bought land on top of a hill in Huntington, using money Moulton had inherited from her great-grandmother. It was 1974.
“It was just this meadow,” Moulton said. “We started building this stone house while I was working. So we were living in tents, and I would wash myself in a bowl of water, get my baby washed up, get my toddler and take him up to daycare. Then I would go to work. At night, I would pick him up and bring him back.”
Moulton knew that building a house stone by stone can take a long time.
“But I heard the story of the three little pigs,” Moulton said. “And I was like, ‘I’m building a stone house in case that wolf ever comes to my door.’ Seriously. My job was to put my son on my back and drive to Starksboro and pick up stones all day long and pile them into this truck. Then I’d pack up the truck and drive it back and unload the stones.”
During the summer, friends came from all over the country to pitch tents in the meadow and help with the building.
“We didn’t get our permit until July 1,” Moulton said. “So we started building with all these wonderful friends who drank an awful lot of beer and smoked probably tons of weed. Together we put up the walls of this little tiny stone house.”
The couple got an FHA loan for $16,000; their monthly mortgage was $86.
“When fall came around, everybody went back to college,” Moulton said. “And then there were the three of us trying to get past the second floor so we could get a roof on. I was still at the hospital working, and Eli had an ear infection, and it was late fall and it snowed one night. When I opened up the tent in the morning there was about four inches of snow on the ground. I turned to Rick and said, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Moulton packed her things, slung the baby on her back and moved in with a friend in Mallett’s Bay. About three days later her husband came by and promised her a roof by Easter.
“And by God, he did!” she said. “He worked and he went down to the house every day, and he got the roof on by Easter.”
A pipe came through the floor, filled a black masonry tub and provided the house with water. The second floor was an open space. Sheets of plastic covered the windows. There was no phone. They heated with wood. They had a bunch of chimney fires. But it was their home, and it only cost $86 a month.
“We’ve been working on that house now for 45 years,” Moulton said. “We’ve done some additions to it. My son, who built a house more quickly than we did, will come in and say, ‘My gosh, when are you going to get that fabric off the wall? It’s been there since 1974.’ His model planes are still in his bedroom, hanging from the ceiling on dental floss. A couple of months ago, when I was with my grandchildren, I said ‘I’m thinking of redoing that room so that guests could stay here.’ And my little granddaughters cried and said, ‘No. You can’t do that, because we want to be able to come and see what it was like when our parents lived here.’ And I thought, ‘I’m good with that.’”
After living and working together for 16 years, Melinda and Rick Moulton finally married in 1987.
“Our son was 16 and our daughter was 9 when we finally tied the knot,” Moulton said. “Our son gave us away at the top of our snowy meadow on Valentine’s Day with 200 friends on cross-country skis. It was 25 degrees below zero, no wind and a bright moon. He said, ‘I have known these people my whole life and if ever there were two people who should be married it’s my parents.’”
A New Career
Moulton got pregnant with her second child a month after she left UHC. Rick was working at home on a film called “Legends of American Skiing.” Moulton began working with him.
“I became his executive producer,” she said. “I had my Selectric typewriter and carbon paper and we started raising money. I am forever indebted to Victor Swenson and the Vermont Humanities Council. Victor gave us a grant which was basically the core of that funding. It allowed us to go out to all the wealthy skiers around the country and ask them for funding. I think we raised about $250,000. So that was my focus for the next five years. We were on food stamps, I was raising my daughter, making the film and being a stay-at-home mom.”
It’s a nice image: Moulton living in her pajamas, breastfeeding her baby, walking her son down the steep driveway to catch his school bus, eating homemade yogurt, granola and bread by the wood stove, raising money for the film.
“The neat thing was that for five years, my children had two stay-at-home parents,” Moulton said. “Rick was traveling all over the country, filming and meeting with people and putting together this pretty extraordinary documentary. It has won many awards. It was just recognized by the National Ski Hall of Fame and the International Ski History Association as one of the top ski films ever made. It’s a glorious film. It was on PBS. They show it all the time. Vermont Public Television shows it every winter.”
The Alden Project
When Moulton’s daughter started school she applied for a job with a development company and was hired over 100 other applicants — Katherine Gibbs had struck again.
This was the Alden Waterfront Project, a $100 million, 27-acre project on the Burlington waterfront that would have loaded it down with hundreds of condos, offices, a seven-story hotel, a large parking garage, an art museum, an ice skating rink and retail. Moulton became director of operations.
“For four years I worked on the project with the architects, the owners, the landscape architects, the planning and the zoning,” Moulton said. “Bernie Sanders, who was the mayor then, loved the project. He was a big supporter. The City Council loved it. It was a big deal.”
At one point the company sent a helicopter to pick Moulton up at her house. She admits she was impressed.
“And I was going to all the planning meetings late at night,” Moulton said. “I never could have done any of that if my husband wasn’t a filmmaker working out of the house and being able to sort of keep an eye on the kids. It was a big job and I was only 33 years old.”
The Alden Project failed after environmentalists launched a determined opposition that defeated a pivotal bond vote in December 1985.
“All the market studies we had said it was going to be fabulous, truly successful,” Moulton said. “And at the time there was this incredible enthusiasm for this project. But there were a lot of people who really hated it. I would go to planning meetings at city council and there would be two or three hundred people in the balcony, really hating everything about it.”
The president of the development group, Moulton’s boss, left when the project turned “wobbly.” Then she started working with Steele, whose husband was a landscape architect; his big dream was this project. “He came in and picked up the pieces,” Moulton said.
Looking back, Moulton is happy that the Alden project failed.
“We’re really glad in so many ways that the project did not go through,” she said. “It was a big vision. It was way too much.”
After The Fall
After the bond vote failed, the project was scrapped. Then Steele went through a divorce and came out of it owning the waterfront land. Meanwhile, Moulton became the marketing director of Lake Champlain Chocolates.
“I got the chocolates into the Ski Industries Association,” Moulton said. “I was selling chocolate and traveling all over the country, selling private label chocolates.”
Six months later, Moulton got a call from Steele, who was selling off pieces of her property.
“Lisa was figuring out how to move beyond all this because she didn’t see how it would go forward,” Moulton said. “I had been coming in and helping with payroll and paying bills. And so she called me one night. I’ll never forget it. I was in a tiny little bathroom, the only bathroom I had in my house, brushing my teeth. I said, ‘Oh darling, what is it?’ And she said, ‘I really want you to come back full time and help me to do what we need to do here. Help me finalize this selling off. I need your help to do this.’”
Instead, Moulton proposed to Steele that they develop the remaining waterfront land together.
“And so I came back,” she said.
Things were not quite the same. Already, 11 acres of waterfront had been optioned from the Vermont Railway for $500,000 an acre on the waterfront as part of the Alden Plan. After the project failed, the city sued the Railroad under the Public Trust Doctrine and got the land for only $65,000 an acre. Then it created Waterfront Park.
Meanwhile, Steele and Moulton set up offices for themselves in Union Station and began examining the properties they had left.
“We had the station,” Moulton said. “We had the 102 Lake Street building. We had the North Meadow. We had the parking area at the corner of Lake and College, and we had this big sort of lawn area next to Union Station. We had the surface parking lot. The only two buildings we had were Union Station and 102 Lake Street. We decided that the last project — with all these big shot lawyers and accountants and architects from Boston and people with helicopters and all this fancy stuff — was not who we were.”
It took some time for the two women to figure out exactly who they were.
“We knew we were women who cared about humanity,” Moulton said. “We knew we were deeply committed to the environment. We cared about the earth, social justice and the rights of everyone.”
They formed a new company, called it Main Street Landing, and began looking for architects to work with.
“We wanted to work with a group of architects, and we wanted it to be local,” Moulton said. “So we put out an invitation to interview with us.”
They created a kind of checklist. Do the architects have a sense of humor? Do they easily relate to women? Do they care about the environment? Do they have a bent towards social justice? Are they creative? Can they think outside the box? Then they graded each one.
“We also started interviewing and videotaping community leaders and everybody around Burlington who had a say in anything,” Moulton said. “What do you want to see on the waterfront? Fill out the survey. Meet with us. Talk to us. We walked the waterfront. We took boats out and looked at it from the lake. Over a year and a half period, the Landing team created this master plan.”
Not wanting to do piecemeal development, they had created a 25-year master plan.
“We told the city that we’ll do it in pieces, because things might change,” Moulton said. “So we presented our master plan at a city council meeting with the Planning Commission and got a standing ovation. They followed us out into the lobby to say, ‘Wow! Nobody’s ever done this.’ And we said, ‘Well, we’re glad you love this. This is our vision.’”
Peter Clavelle, who was Burlington’s mayor at the time, called them into his office and told them it was time for them to act.
“So we started working on Phase One, and we realized we had to actually build something,” Moulton said.
Each building was designed by a different architect: The Wing was done by John Anderson. The CornerStone by Michael Wisniewski and Bob Duncan, and the Train Station off the back of Union Station was designed by Martin Tierney.
“We received our permits for the project after a long protracted appeal which helped to redesign the project better than originally designed,” Moulton said. “We hired Neagly and Goldfield as our construction management firm, threw a fabulous ground-breaking party that included a train cake and speeches. Lisa and I were ecstatic that finally after 12 years of visioning and planning and permitting, we were finally going to build.”
The former Burlington train station and now Main Street Landing HQ. The train from New York City hasn't run since the 1950s. VBM photo.
In 1995 they opened the doors of the Wing and CornerStone Buildings. The gleaming marble Union Station became a haven for artists and nonprofits.
“And now, with the new ground floor as the train station, we were ready to await the return of passenger rail to Burlington — little did we know that it would take at least another almost 30 years for the train to arrive, which we expect by 2023,” Moulton said.
In the plaza of the Wing Building, they created a time capsule that will be opened in 2095. It includes copies of the building plans, a jog bra, baseball cards, current newspapers, and many other items. Someday, its contents would help future generations understand what it was like back in the day.
The two new buildings cost $7 million in private money. The train station upgrade was done with $1.5 million of federal money. Total cost: $8.5 million.
The commuter train, called the Champlain Flyer, ran two trips a day between Burlington to Charlotte from 2000 to 2003. At its time, it was the shortest commuter route in the country. It never attracted the ridership it sought, was expensive to run, and when Dean was no longer governor, his successor, Governor Jim Douglas, closed it down.
But not before the NBC Nightly News got hold of the story. They were doing a series of pieces on wasteful government spending called “The Fleecing of America.” They learned about the Champlain Flyer and sent a news team.
“Howard calls me one day and says, ‘Be prepared. NBC News is sending up a production crew and they’re claiming that you’re a Fleecer of America for Tom Brokaw’s show,’” Moulton said. “So in comes the production crew and I just fell in love with the producer. She and I just clicked. They had me walk down the stairs while they filmed me and she asked me some benign questions. I explained that Vermont’s history is rich with rail and we care about the environment and commuter rail is important. So in my 15 minutes of fame, I was the fleecer of America.”
The TV piece turned out well.
“And right before it, there was a story about being in Iraq and spending $2 billion a day on the war,” Moulton said. “So $1.5 million to bring public transit to a state that cares about the environment didn’t look too bad.”
They Reinvent Contracting
With Phase One completed, a confident Moulton and Steele were looking for another project. It turned out to be the parking lot at the corner of Lake and College streets.
“Something Lisa and I always wanted to do was to do a performing arts center,” Moulton said. “We didn’t do it in Phase One because we don’t want to compete with the Flynn. But it was in our minds. My mom ran a community theater. Lisa’s mom was an actress. There’s so much stuff that happened in our lives that just serendipitously connected us in such a profoundly beautiful way. There was an architect, Colin Lindberg, who we knew. He had been probably driving by that empty lot for years. So let’s talk to Colin.”
Moulton and Steele wrote out what they were thinking of and presented it to Lindberg.
“We wanted each one of the facades of the building to look like a different building,” Moulton said. “We didn’t want it to look like one building. We wanted it done in local products like brick and stone. We wanted it to be classic and feel like the old pioneer shops from the 1800s. We wanted a LEED Certification from the Green Building Council for energy and environmental excellence. And we wanted a performing arts center. We gave him that list and within two weeks —two weeks! — he came back with this beautiful drawing. He knew exactly what he wanted to see in that corner.”
Moulton and Steele upped the development ante by doing the contracting in-house.
“The project was estimated to be much more than I felt we could have it if we were going to keep our rents affordable,” Moulton said. “And a lot of that is what you pay the GC. We knew that from the first project. So I said to Lisa, ‘I want to run this myself.’ We decided not to go out to bid. We met with our sub-contractors — people who had worked with us before — to see if they could meet the budget we created. We chose firms where there was trust, and professionalism, and excellence, and love. They sat in on the meetings with the architect to develop the construction drawings, thereby keeping the costs within range. It was a fabulous experience having the contractors of all the various trades meeting weekly with the architect, being in the room and having tremendous input.”
Generally, the architect goes out to bid to a general contractor or construction management firm and they get bids from the subcontractor. There were two downsides to the process: the middleman charges; and the owner or their representative does not have as much input.
“In the way we did it, we had total control over the budget, the design and the construction, and in the end we brought the project in under budget by several million dollars less than if we had gone with a traditional approach to construction,” Moulton said. “By keeping construction costs in check, we could charge reasonable rents and thereby cater to local businesses. We were involved in every aspect of the project down to the most minute decisions. It was like a family. We created a large sign at the entrance of the building that lists everyone who worked on Lake & College — it’s over 700 people. We received Silver LEED Certification and we were the first commercial building in Burlington to get LEED. The building has been a great success, especially our 220-seat Performing Arts Center.”
Not everyone in Burlington welcomed these projects. It had to go through Act 250, where it was appealed.
“In our original project for the Lake & College Building, there was a 30-room waterfront inn,” Moulton said. “Because it was a hotel, we had to go through Act 250. We had 100 percent city support, but when we applied for Act 250 we were appealed by a couple of folks from across the street whose views would be blocked. It was a protracted process and we had to defend our project. Views aren’t protected in Vermont. We finally got unanimous approval by the Act 250 commission.”
Moulton passionately defends the Act 250 process.
“Act 250 is really valuable for the integrity of our environment and to provide for slow, thoughtful, incremental growth,” she said.
The project came in at under $20 a square foot.
“People gasped,” Moulton said. “We had a contingency fund that paid for tie-backs, because the building had to be tied into the embankment, and we didn’t even have that in the budget. We had to do all lightweight fill so we weren’t putting too much weight behind the building. There a lot of things that we found out about when we started to dig around over there. And we still brought it in on budget. I paid all the bills, ran the whole budget right out of my own system. So we basically did an in-house construction job on that building. And we’re able to keep the rents affordable so we can have local businesses there.”
Only one thing was lacking from the Lake & College Building: tenants.
“This building was going to open on July 3rd, 2005,” Moulton said. “That February, we still had plastic on the windows. I didn’t have one tenant. And I was starting to get a little nervous. Then I was home one night and the phone rang. It was Jeffrey Hollander for Seventh Generation. Now, I was on the board of VPIRG with Jeffrey. We were friends. And he said, ‘Melinda, I’ve got these five different locations and I’m thinking of consolidating. We’d like to look at your new building.’”
Hollander and his associates viewed the space in the middle of February when it was 10 degrees below zero.
“There’s a huge wind blowing,” Moulton said. “There’s ice over everything. We clunk up these metal stairs to the top and it’s just a concrete floor. The plastic’s flapping on the windows. Nothing’s finished. Jeffrey walks over, pulls back one of the plastic sheets, and looks out the window. Waves are crashing over the breakwater. Ice is all over the floor Everything is sliding around. He goes, ‘This is it!’ They rented 36,000-square-feet and became my anchor tenant.”
Seventh Generation, now owned by Unilever, just renewed for another seven years.
“They’re doing a big fix-up,” Moulton said. “They’re refitting their space. So they’re investing in the building. But at that moment in my career, in 2005, having this 120,000-square-foot LEED certified building coming online in five months and not having a tenant, it was amazing. Then things start to fall into place. We got Skinny Pancake. We got the Peace and Justice Center. The tenants that we’ve had are just phenomenal. Right now we’re like less than 1 percent vacancy. We do not have openings very often in Main Street Landing, because people love to be here.”
The Performing Arts Center, which is co-managed by Moulton’s daughter, offers performances and movie festivals on the third floor.
“People told us you can’t put a performing arts center on the third floor of this building because you’re going to lose all the high rents,” Moulton said. “That’s where the gorgeous views are. And you’re putting in what? A movie theater and a black box theater? Your numbers will never work. Well, guess what? They do. And we rent these performing art spaces for very little to the community. It works because our tenants help subsidize the performing arts piece through their rents. And one of the ways we did that was by making sure that we constructed it at a price where we could really keep the rents low.”
How does Main Street Landing manage to keep its rents low?
“I just think other people just want to make more money,” Moulton said. “I don’t think we’re making the kind of money that other developers want to make. We generate about 27 percent rate of return on cash flow. A chunk of that goes towards capital improvements. Probably as a developer, our rate of return isn’t as great as maybe somebody who lives in New York and owns a building in Burlington and wants to charge $40 a square foot. Main Street Landing is different. Our business card says, ‘Not your typical developer.’ We’re not in it just for the money. We’re in it to create a way of life.”
Yet Main Street Landing makes money. It invests some of that money in capital improvements to make sure its projects are five-star across the board. And as you would expect from Moulton and Steele, they are socially conscious employers.
“Our employees are paid excellent salaries,” Moulton said. “Everybody has full health insurance for them and their families. We have dental. We have a retirement program. Everybody gets 20 days a year off on paid leave, regardless of whether you’ve been here for a year or whether it’s me. We are able to take wonderful care of our employees, and a lot of them have been here for a long, long time. We’re able to subsidize the performing arts. We have a corporate giving program that’s giving 10 percent of our profits to local nonprofits. We are very philanthropic in the community. We serve on boards. We have a policy with our tenants that if they have a lease, and they’re struggling, we will tear up the lease. We don’t want to create suffering here.”
These so-called “Sixties values” pay off nicely.
“We always say that we want to build beautiful buildings, we want to be able to make money, and we want to be able to care for people and planet,” Moulton said. “And we do all those things. A lot of the advice that we got back when we were building was that it wouldn’t work out. But at the end of the day, yes it did.”
When the Champlain Flyer came in, Moulton loved and supported it.
“I was devastated when the funds got pulled,” she said. “It was a demonstration project and they didn’t let it demonstrate long enough. It should have run forever. Over the last 10 years, Amtrak has been working on the western corridor. They’re in Middlebury right now. They’re bringing this line — the Ethan Allen Express — to Union Station. Great! We’re all for Amtrak. Bring it in!”
But Amtrak only runs the trains. The land the trains run on is owned by the State of Vermont and leased to a corporate entity called Vermont Railway.
When Vermont Railway celebrated its 50th year, the Burlington Free Press wrote a story about it. “Jay Wulfson had signed a lease agreement with the state of Vermont to begin the first privately-operated rail system operating on a public right of way in the United States,” it wrote. “It began operating in Burlington on Jan. 6, 1964. Today it operates more than 350 miles of track.”
The railway is now run by Wulfson’s son, David Wulfson.
“About a year ago, I got a call from a woman who works in the public works department for Burlington,” Moulton said. “She said, ‘You’ve got to come to a public hearing because there’s stuff that’s coming up that has to do with Main Street Landing’s property. You really should be there.’”
Vermont Railway wants to add a second set of tracks where the bikepath now runs along the Wing Building. The bikepath would likely move to the other side of the tracks closer to the lake. See story HERE. VBM photo.
What Moulton — that Fleecer of America! — learned blindsided her. Wulfson was planning to build a second rail line between King and College streets so that the coming Amtrak train could idle overnight before it ran south again. To do it, it would cut in half the waterfront’s pedestrian space.
Moulton feels this new line will turn Main Street Landing’s properties into something like a rail yard, and she has set about protecting her legacy with ferocity.
“Why do they need a second line here if they’ve got a nearby rail yard?” she asked. “So I went down, saw the presentation, and put together a petition. Then people started coming out of the woodwork to say, ‘Hey, this is not right.’ I mean, how do you fit a rail line eight feet from a residential building? There’s been this vision for the Burlington waterfront that didn’t include a second track between King and College streets. It just wasn’t part of the deal. It’s going to destroy the character of this area. More people bike and walk on this bike path than anywhere else in Vermont.”
Moulton believes that Vermont Railway wants to move the existing waterfront rail yard.
“They say that it’s going to cost $50 million dollars to park the Amtrak in their rail yard, but to rip up the bike path to put in a second rail, it’s only $250,000,” Moulton said. “Their whole report was just dicey.”
Moulton came up with an elegant alternative solution.
“We have a plan that’ll work for everyone for $7 million dollars,” Moulton said. “I know for a fact that to do all the work is not going to be $250,000. It will cost more like $2 million or $2.5 million. So why not put that $2.5 million into going north? That way we can park the train in Essex Junction. Eventually we can go up to St Albans, which has an empty rail yard. Then we can go to Montreal, where there are 4 million people who would love to come to Burlington. If Wulfson wants to move his rail yard, that’s a perfect place to maybe do it right.”
Luckily for Moulton, the land in question is owned by the State of Vermont, which could — ahem — derail the project.
“State ownership is a complicating factor for the railroad,” she said. “It’s actually a blessing for us. If the railroad owned the land, then nobody would have a say. I think right now the Secretary of Transportation has a say about what happens on their land. Do we really want to have trains parked all over the waterfront?”
Moulton is raising money to fight the extension.
“This administration is very pro rail, and there’s a lot of rail money there to make the argument that we go north,” Moulton said. “I’m a solution-doer. If the solution is that we don’t need a second rail line, if we can go north, then there’s already a rail line. But it’s so slow that Amtrak isn’t going to want to use it. We’ve got to upgrade it. Then it would take them like 12 minutes to get to Essex Junction. Rather than say no, I’m saying, ‘Look, we have a solution. If we do this solution, Wulfson, you don’t need to park the Amtrak on the waterfront.’ Amtrak would love to go north, by the way. At the end of the day, I may get a big steel rail nail shoved in my eye and get told, ‘Sorry. Sit down. Zip it. This is all gonna happen.’ But in my heart of hearts, I think I can make this work for everyone.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about legacy.
“That second line will be here for decades,” Moulton said. “It’s a big deal. Peter Clavelle was able to get 15 rail lines off the waterfront and build a park. So who’s going to let the rail expand onto the waterfront again? Why allow it to expand?”
The immediate future is dedicated to fighting off the new rail line. Moulton is so creative, forceful and well-connected that one feels slightly sorry for Mr. David Wulfson.
“Some days I feel like people are listening and people are hearing me and people are getting it and people are behind me,” Moulton said. “Then at other times, I feel like the bottom is just falling out and I’m losing it. Lisa and I worked 36 years here to create this beautiful environment and I can’t tell you what it’s like if you’re going to see two locomotives sitting out there spewing diesel. At some point, I may just have to crawl away and just be defeated. But I’m a fighter. I think we can win this thing.”
Moulton has taken her plan to the Vermont Rail Advisory Council, which tabled a discussion about it until December. Next she’s going to the Burlington City Council.
“The next thing I have in my mind is to go out for a public vote in March,” Moulton said. “If the majority of people don’t care, it’s going be hard for me to fight for this. But I think they care. And I’ve talked to so many people who know nothing about this. People who should know about it. This is not where I wanted to be at this juncture in my life especially after being a fleecer of America for rail, but it’s OK.”
Steele and Moulton’s 25-year master plan still exists, and there are two pieces of property left to be developed. Moulton’s not sure she will be the developer.
“I’m getting old,” she explained. “To do a project on the waterfront is extremely difficult. It’s the people’s waterfront, and Lisa and I have always felt we were stewards. There were 22 attempts in the 20th century to develop the waterfront. The 13 years we took before we started our first project — years and years of study, plus project development work — we felt it was really important to engage the community. And that takes time. We purchased the land in 1982 and 1983. We started building Phase One in 1993.”
A Main Street Landing succession plan is in the works. Moulton plans to remain CEO for a few more years. Besides fighting the second rail, she has several capital improvement projects she wants to see through, including upgrading the energy system.
“The first project is now 25 years old, so we’re doing all sorts of upgrades to the property,” she said.
In a few years she would like to retire to more creative pursuits.
“I’m a pianist,” she said. “I compose music. I’m hoping to write a couple of books. I have a grandson with autism and I’m writing a book about his life. My husband and I would like to make a film about autism. And I’d like to write a book about what it was like for two women to enter this man’s world and approach development that was never Development 101.”
Moulton frequently lectures around the country on development, feminism, social justice and leadership. Main Street Landing is her topic, her proof that Sixties ideals really work, and her legacy.
“When I’m 90 years old and come down here with my great-grandchildren, I can say, ‘Look what we did,” she said. “Look at this beautiful performing arts center that we created. This is what Lisa and I did together with the help of all the stakeholders in the city. I’ve been here for 36 years. It’s been an extraordinary career. It’s not over. People usually dislike developers. Well, we did it differently. You can do development and care about the environment. You can care about the people who will live in your buildings. You can care about your community. And you can still make money. I don’t mean to sound corny about it, but at the end of the day we are really all about the love.”
Steele agrees. She told me she is proud of the work she and Moulton have done.
“I don’t think there had been any other women developers,” Steele said. “We were young, in our 30s. It was a big deal. I’m really proud of what Melinda’s done. The two of us get along well. I’m slow-motioned. She gets things done very quickly and thoroughly. We’re great friends. It all took time, and wasn’t easy, but it’s great to have all these people using the waterfront. We put in some good long, hard years and I feel pretty happy about how things happened.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the photographer who took the photos for this story. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro. The couple have been living in a Windham and Windsor Housing Trust shared equity home for more than 22 years.
This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Vermont Business Magazine.