BURLINGTON, Vt. - This city, the largest in Vermont, has always taken unusual pride in its smallness.
Home to not quite 40,000 people and a perennial favorite in "best small city" rankings of national magazines, Burlington is dwarfed by the natural grandness that surrounds it: the wide, blue view of Lake Champlain; the hazy embrace of the Green Mountains. People here are deeply attached to that contrast and have long preferred to keep their man-made landmarks to a manageable scale.
So when the University of Vermont this fall opened its huge new student center, a four-story monolith of brick and steel built alongside Main Street on the hill that functions as the gateway to the city, it was met with considerable unease.
University officials have hailed the 4-acre, $61 million complex as a symbol of growth and revitalization at the smallest public flagship campus in the country.
But residents have called the structure an eyesore, a blight, a blunder, and "an architect's ego gone wild" in letters to the local newspaper, the Burlington Free Press.
Students also are debating the merits of the building, and some say they are uncomfortable with its size, 186,000 square feet, which includes ample space for student clubs and activities; a food court with sushi, burritos, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream; a bank; a copy shop; a bookstore; a ballroom; and a game room with pool tables, lounge chairs and a fireplace.
Across Vermont, residents have struggled to reconcile the need for economic development with the changes wrought by growth upon their treasured rural landscape, itself a vital engine for the tourism industry.
Towns have formed committees to consider limiting the size of "big box" stores, while other officials brainstorm ways to entice new employers.
In Burlington, an ongoing overhaul of city zoning rules is designed in part to help businesses locate downtown, and includes proposed "height bonuses" that would allow buildings to exceed six stories in exchange for amenities such as public art or parking.
Growth downtown or at the university, one of the state's largest employers, is good for the city if it is managed well, Mayor Bob Kiss said. The university has added 200 staff jobs and 90 faculty as part of its recent growth campaign, officials said.
"People like Burlington the way it is," Kiss said, "and we don't want to open the door to untrammeled development, but I think there is room for growth downtown, and for more taller buildings that might be six, seven, eight stories."
Students shooting pool at the Dudley H. Davis Center said Vermonters were more likely to criticize the building while students from outside the state had been quick to embrace it.
"Being from Burlington, I think it takes away from the charming aesthetic of the city, to have this monstrosity where you used to be able to see more of the lake and the city," said senior Andrew Mullineaux, 21, a biology major. "It's a walkable, livable city, and this gives the idea that we're not staying that course - like now it's OK to build giant buildings here."