Development versus Democracy

By Sue Pastor — The city’s Urban Design Commission suggested additional very minor changes and approved T Wall’s Portage Road Apartments on July 29. My comments to the commission, which I have also sent to the new Director of Planning and Community and Economic Development Natalie Erdman, follow. These should be accompanied by thanks to Alder Baldeh of District 17, who pressed for a reduction in the density, resulting in a smaller building facing Portage Road. The setback of two stories in front dramatically improves the view of the building for immediate neighbors.

The same night, Urban Design did not approve T Wall’s Wingra Point project at the intersection of Park Street and Fish Hatchery. Commissioners sent the T Wall team back to the drawing board on a number of elements. Both of these projects illustrate the need for public clamor around issues of democracy and transparency and democracy in connection with development issues — especially as the city looks toward the 2016 Comprehensive Plan revision. Come to the August GMM and tell us what is happening in your neighborhood!

Comments before the Urban Design Commission, July 29, 2015, regarding the Portage Road Apartments Project

I know you will approve this project tonight, but I want to take this opportunity to highlight how it shows the need for a better, more democratic, more transparent process. The more time passes, the more troubled I am by the bad precedents it sets.

There was no good reason for the community to be railroaded with regard to setting these bad precedents. We had time to debate the issues as issues of policy and to consider the implications. With the considerable delay since Common Council approval, the sky appears not to have fallen, the ground seems to remain under our feet, and the project has not been killed, which we were led to believe would happen if time was taken to address the (selfish) concerns of project neighbors.

Tonight you are approving the design elements of a project that is 10 feet from a wetland. The Comp Plan standard is 75 feet. The density for this project was calculated and presented to the Plan Commission using the unbuildable green space acreage of the parcel.

These are both bad precedents. They also raise concerns about transparency. As we neighbors (and Plan Commissioners) asked about the density, the Comp Plan was repeatedly cited as “calling for” this density. (The developer’s consultant actually presented it as a mandate.) But it was never mentioned that we are violating Comp Plan standard by building 10 feet from the wetland — this point was only raised by the Friends of Starkweather Creek. 

Staff seem to pick and choose elements of plans to represent, based on which support approval. To say the density fits with the Comp Plan is really a fudge. Prior to Alder Baldeh’s negotiations that resulted in the set backs on both ends of the first building, calculating the density based on the land the project is actually built on gives a density at the very upper end of medium — 40 units per acre. The Comp Plan states that this kind of density belongs near General Employment or Commercial Districts. Here it is on the periphery of the city, near nothing you can reach without driving. 

I know these policy issues are not your concern, as the Urban Design Commission. Here is something which is. I wonder why you found it necessary to reject the design changes the developer was willing to make, which were preferable to the neighborhood. In particular, I recall the derisive characterization of our tastes as “beige”.

On the far west side, a development at Paragon Place has a light, single color scheme and design that would have been much more compatible with Churchill Heights, across Portage Road. In fact, this design is attractive (whereas the changes you rejected at Portage Road were only less ugly, not attractive). Why is light color acceptable on the far west side and not on the far east side?

I will be seeking ways to address these issues of democracy and transparency through other channels. I know that while developers pay substantial fees to support the work of city planning, city residents also support this work with our tax dollars. Something is fundamentally wrong if the work for which we are paying happens through a process that is adversarial to us, or in which there is contempt for us.

Thank you.