Development and Democracy

By Sue Pastor — Early in June, Common Council chose to delay a vote on the T Wall Enterprises Portage Road Apartments, taking a step that allowed more time to address the concerns of project neighbors and illustrating the importance of a democratically minded alder.  

Prior to the April election, in which Samba Baldeh defeated Joe Clausius by a narrow margin, this behemoth complex of 284 units in three four-story buildings together with a clubhouse and pool was on a fast track for city approval. The plans had been in the works for much of a year, but neighbors across Portage Road in Churchill Heights learned about them when invited to a March 2 community meeting.

At that time, they were told that the project would be on the May 5 Common Council meeting agenda for approval, and was scheduled for review by the Urban Design Commission on April 8, the day following the election.

Despite claims by the developer and Alder Clausius that the project was good for the neighborhood, Churchill Heights residents signed a petition asking that it be modified or stopped. The main concerns were scale and density, but there were many others.

There is nothing more than two stories tall anywhere nearby, and the blockish buildings were an ugly contrast to the angles and lighter colors of Churchill, across Portage Road. The stormwater management plan was not convincing for an area that already experiences flooding, although the plan was within legal standards. Even the staff report raised concerns about the inadequate parking.

Slowing It Down: When the Urban Design Commission met on April 8, immediate neighbors, together with residents of the larger neighborhood, were there to ask for referral to a later meeting. Alder-elect Baldeh had also written to the Commission with the same request, seeking time to address neighbors’ concerns.

All in attendance realized that neighbors of another T Wall Enterprises project, Veritas Village in District 2, had had the benefit of lengthy negotiations with the developer.  They also heard Al Martin, staffing the Commission, read an email from Alder Clausius, in which he called the resident who circulated the petition a “trouble-maker,” and urged them to move ahead with approval.

Following a larger community meeting, which included a head-spinning number of twisted representations by Mr. Wall himself, the developer’s team modified the design of the project to be somewhat less ugly, and stepped back the first story of the building facing Portage Road and Churchill Heights, so that residents would see a three-story building instead.

The Urban Design Commission rejected that design change, making it clear to residents that their banal and unsophisticated taste was inferior to that of the city planning elite.  

En route to the Plan Commission, this left only the step back as a concession from the developer, and the Plan Commission had no trouble granting unanimous approval.   Misrepresentations continued to abound though, illustrating how city planning processes don’t require transparency or accuracy with facts.

High-End or “Affordable”? Where before residents at the community meeting were told that the new tenants at Portage Road Apartments would all want to park their BMWs and Mercedes Benzes underground, not on the streets of Churchill Heights, and that the apartments would appeal to high end renters, such as Epic employees, the apartments had suddenly become “affordable housing,” and the two community meetings had suddenly become “numerous” — to expressions of disbelief from the gallery.

Although he failed to recognize Alder Baldeh and made him go to the back with neighborhood residents, Chair Ken Opin deserves credit for making T Wall specify the number of meetings and the dates. 

By the time of the Council meeting on June 2, it was also clear that the developer had not really been “working” with the Friends of Starkweather Creek. The Friends submitted a letter detailing numerous (more than two) problems with the project — the 10-foot setback from the wetland, for example, was 65 feet less than what is specified in the city’s Comprehensive Plan; there was no plan for protecting trees — and no inventory of existing plant species.

Testimony before the Council revealed that the acceptable density had been arrived at by calculating the units per acre including all of the acreage, even though about half of it is undevelopable wetland, through which Starkweather Creek flows. T Wall emphasized repeatedly that he was setting aside or preserving this natural area, when really it cannot be developed. This fact backed up residents’ perspective, that this peripheral area was being treated like downtown, with density at the very upper end of what is considered “medium”.

Council referred to the June 16 meeting, despite repeated insistence by the developer all throughout the process that delays would kill the project. When the project was approved at that later date, additional changes had been made in an additional step back on the first building, reducing the size of it and helping somewhat with the parking issue. There were also additional conditions placed by staff, which reflected the Friends of Starkweather Creek concerns, and it turned out that the first building could be set back 25 feet from Portage Road after all, instead of only 15.

Not Perfect, but Better: Although no one in the neighborhood has expressed happiness with it, the project got better. Even the two week delay made a significant difference, and having watched Council run roughshod over neighborhood concerns in decision after decision for the last few years, it seemed nothing short of miraculous to see the neighborhood be granted that time. And with more time — and with valuing rather than rejecting neighborhood scrutiny, the project could have gotten better still.

Ironically, the developer was not ready for Urban Design on June 24, and so cannot seek final approval until the July 15 meeting. Sadly, at the same Council meeting, District 13 Alder Sara Eskrich told her colleagues that more time would not make any difference for her constituents, who waited through the Portage Road testimony and the mayor’s monologue on the homeless as a protected class (happily ignored in the outcome) to raise concerns with T Wall’s Wingra Point project. It matters who your alder is, folks.

While neighbors consistently asked for more time to address issues with the project, the developer insisted delays would sink the project. Ironically, after receiving Common Council approval on June 16, his team was not ready to seek final approval at the Urban Design Commission on June 24 or July 15. City staff has indicated that work should not go forward without final approval from UDC, but it appears that there has been some disruption to the property.  Unfortunately, it is not possible to know what might be going on behind the scenes.

Come to Progressive Dane’s July General Membership Meeting (July 22, 6:30pm at Madison Senior Center, 330 W. Mifflin St.) for further discussion of the city planning processes and their bearing on issues of equity and access to influence in decision-making.