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Finding Renewal in a Waterfront Renaissance

IN 1974, when Art Cohn took a job as a commercial diver on the Burlington, Vt., waterfront, “it was a no man’s land: oil tanks, barbed wire everywhere, scrap yards and junk,” he said. Now, as executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, which is dedicated to the lake’s maritime history, Mr. Cohn can stand on the deck of the museum’s schooner and survey a waterfront teeming with cyclists, joggers, boaters and tourists.

“It’s a completely different place,” he said. “The transformation is extraordinary.”

Burlington — which, with about 39,000 residents, is Vermont’s largest city — is rediscovering an asset long hidden in plain sight: Lake Champlain, a waterway that transported people and merchandise and, said Mr. Cohn, brought the city into existence. The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, which has its main campus south of Burlington in the city of Vergennes, keeps the Lois McClure — a replica of a canal schooner — on the Burlington waterfront, and maintains a small exhibit space there.

In the second half of the 19th century, Mr. Cohn said, the lumber business thrived, and waterfront acreage was created with fill “just to have more land on which to pile more lumber.” But by the 1930s and ’40s, the waterfront had become primarily a storage place for oil tanks. Melinda Moulton, a local entrepreneur who bought land there in the early 1980s, remembers touring sites with a squirt gun in hand, to keep the rats at bay. Just three steep city blocks from the always-bustling Church Street Marketplace — a pedestrian mall developed in 1981 and frequented by residents, visitors and students from the nearby University of Vermont — the waterfront lay neglected.

That all began to change around 1988, when the Waterfront Revitalization Plan — heavy on public use, environmental consciousness and careful private development — was created.

Today, the waterfront exudes a cheerful, busy atmosphere. Well into the fall, Spandex-wearing cyclists on 24-speed carbon-fiber bikes share the 14-mile bike path along the lake with children still using training wheels, skateboarders, in-line skaters and joggers. Volleyballs and Frisbees sail through the air at the Waterfront Park. Toddlers experiment with water and other hands-on exhibits at the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center (Echo is an acronym for Ecology, Culture, History and Opportunities for stewardship). Diners share overstuffed crepes at the just-opened Skinny Pancake or, in season, a burger and a beer at the water’s very edge, on the floating deck at the restaurant Splash.

Many of the amenities are seasonal, including public facilities on the city’s three beaches, boat rentals, outdoor food vendors and tour boats, which open in the spring and close in mid-October. But it is year-round shops, residences and businesses that will keep the waterfront alive, said Ms. Moulton. In April, the Marriott Courtyard Burlington Harbor became the first new hotel to open in downtown Burlington in 30 years; it overlooks the lake from Battery Street, which runs parallel to the shoreline. Next door, a former Wyndham Hotel underwent $16 million worth of renovations and opened its doors last month as a Hilton. Just down the street, a former casual dining spot reopened in June with a Frenchified menu (escargots, coq au vin). As Quatorze Bistro, it rejoins the small number of established restaurants, delis and markets around Battery Street.

In 2005, Ms. Moulton and her business partner, Lisa Steele, opened the Lake & College Building, a 119,000-square-foot brick and stone structure that earned a silver LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design); it offers 30,000 square feet of public space. In addition to the Skinny Pancake and offices, the building houses a movie theater and a performing arts theater. All are open year round, as are Echo and the nearby Taste of Burlington restaurant.

Rick Benson, the chef who opened Taste nearly three years ago in an 1850s-era, brick-and-timber mill building on a street paralleling the bike path, said that business doubled from the first to the second year of operation. Customers may come for a soup made with local beets and white truffle oil or a plate of duck with sour cherry sauce.

The city’s future revitalization plans may include an outdoor skating rink, a public market and public transit by rail and water. Currently, public transportation to the waterfront is limited but handy: a free bus with a route that shuttles from the lake to the Church Street Marketplace and on to the University of Vermont.

With all of the biking and jogging and dining going on, it is sometimes easy to forget that there is an entire lake out there — 120 miles long and 12 miles wide — waiting to be explored.

Those who don’t own boats can, in season, rent them; aside from the small sailboats and kayaks rented at the Community Sailing Center (www.communitysailingcenter.org), several small-boat rental locations dot the lake shore. The 400-passenger Spirit of Ethan Allen III (www.soea.com) offers daily cruises and, in spring of 2008, a newcomer, the Moonlight Lady (www.vermontmoonlightlady.com), will offer two-to-seven-day cruises, the first ship to do so since 1952, according to its owner Mike Shea.

The Lake Champlain Transportation Company (www.ferries.com) operates ferries to the New York side of the lake and back year-round, but the boat running between Burlington and Port Kent, N.Y., stops running in October.

Scuba divers can, in season, explore shipwrecks, marked with buoys that are part of the Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve. The maritime museum has teamed with a local operator to offer shipwreck tours via a remotely operated vehicle (R.O.V.) from a boat on the lake’s surface, one of only three commercially operated R.O.V. tours in the world, according to Rachael Miller, co-owner of Lake Champlain Shipwrecks (www.shipwrecktour.com).

Visitors can expect waterfront activity to increase dramatically by 2009, when Vermont — along with the state of New York and the province of Quebec — commemorate the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s first visit to the region.

Mr. Cohn says the city’s “waterfront renaissance” enriches both citizens and visitors. “When you discover your waterfront, you discover more than views. You discover your history,” he said.

ON THE WATER'S EDGE AND BEYOND

WHERE TO STAY

The Courtyard Burlington Harbor (25 Cherry Street, 802-864-4700, 800-321-2211; www.marriott.com). Rates start at $169 from Nov. 11 to April 30, and at $269 from May 1 to Nov. 10.

The Hilton Burlington (60 Battery Street, 802-658-6500, 800-445-8667; www.hilton.com). Rates start at around $150 from November through April, and at $169 from May through October.

WHERE TO EAT

Taste of Burlington (112 Lake Street, 802-658-4844; www.tasteofburlington.com.). Entrees from $18 to $25; open nightly from 5 p.m.

Skinny Pancake (Lake & College Building, 802-540-0188; www.skinnypancake.com). Sweet and savory crepes, from $4.50 to $9. Open daily.

Quatorze Bistro (30 Main Street, 802-865-9700; www.quatorzebistro.com). Dinner entrees $16 to $26; closed Sundays.

WHAT TO DO

Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center (1 College Street; 802-864-1848, 877-324-6386; www.echovermont.org). Open daily; admission $9.50 for adults, $7 children age 3 to 17; free for children under 3.

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (4472 Basin Harbor Road, Vergennes, 802-475-2022; www.lcmm.org). Open daily through Oct. 14. Admission $9 for adults, $5 for students; children under 5 free.

For information about the bike path, contact Local Motion, a nonprofit organization that promotes cycling, in-line skating, walking and running. Information: 802-652-2453; www.localmotion.org.

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