Community-based planning routinely overturned to benefit developers

By Sue Pastor — Residents of Madison’s varied neighborhoods are increasingly connecting the dots about a distressing pattern around development projects, talking to each other, and calling for a broad forum to address this city-wide. At issue is whether we have anything to say about the place we live, and into which we pour our energy and resources (including taxes) and go about our lives.

Project by project, the script is the same — Madison is growing and needs housing. 

“Growing” might be code for the city’s transformation to “Epic-ville”, for “millenials” who want to live in high rises. Occasionally, an element of affordable housing is included — and dangled before neighbors who themselves may face the pressures of gentrification and the rising property values the city celebrates. If anyone has asked what level of development the aquifer will support, or what we might do with the high rises when living in them falls out of fashion, or the Epic boom is over — that conversation is certainly not a frequent one.   

In project after project, neighbors are cast as naïve, anti-apartment NIMBYs. It is not painting with too broad a brush to say that neighbors and neighborhood plans are seen as unfortunate impediments to developments the Planning Department wants. As inaccurate as it is to characterize all neighborhood testimony in the same way, neighborhood residents meet with the same fate on every project.

Running roughshod over neighborhood plans is the current modus operandi. The “8Twenty Park” project by Jacob T. Klein, the first phase of which was just approved by the Board of Estimates for affordable housing funds (the second phase was not), is a stunning affront to the 2010 Greenbush–Vilas Revitalization Project. Greenbush neighbors are not opposed to affordable housing itself, and the other two projects before the BoE for affordable housing funds did not face opposition.

The five-story McKenzie Place project, 2107-2249 N. Sherman was approved at Plan Commission in September. In opposing the height and bulk of the 60 market rate units, neighbors cited the Emerson East-Eken Park Neighborhood Plan, which calls for “rehabilitation and new construction ... consistent with the character and integrity of the neighborhood” and for retaining architectural style to reflect the mainly one or two story height of buildings. From the minutes, it is not clear how this project came to be approved, but those present say that when the developer indicated the project would be dead if not approved in very short order, someone hastily proposed lopping off a story, and approving it — which they did, ignoring the concerns of more than 70 neighbors.

Don’t we know by now that “the project will die if not approved now” is an old trick?

Rush, rush, rush!

It is only very recently that T Wall was seeking funding for his Portage Road Apartments, and he has not yet broken ground — despite his insistence, back in June, that a delay of any time at all would kill the project. That’s the “yuck factor” in the development process. Developers can lie. Or say things that later seem to be untrue. And there is no accountability for this.

Contempt for neighborhood plans dates at least from the Common Council’s regrettable vote on the behemoth Iota Court apartments in February 2013. During that conversation, then–Planning Director Steve Cover, who hired quite a few of the current planners, made it clear that neighborhood plans were something less than a priority. 

Then-Alder Rhodes-Conway, one of three “no” votes, was incisive in her response to Cover.  Her words should be probably be repeated often, until city residents have exerted pressure enough to lead to a revision of the development process — or at the very least a correction to the way it now leans heavily toward the developer’s interests:

“Frankly Mr. Cover, I am shocked. I’m appalled. I’m horrified. Excuse my language folks, but what the hell do we put all this time and money for in, if we are not going to actually respect and use our plans. I’m sorry, I’ve got better things to do. Why should I go looking at redoing the Emerson East–Eken Park plan which will take us at least a year and possibly $10K to produce, why should my neighborhoods go through that if the minute after it is adopted, someone who is high up in the city and should be well respected, is going to say its really more just like guidelines.

“That’s horrifying, that is insulting to people who spent hours in community meetings, who pored through the plan and made comments on it, it’s insulting to the staff who spent years of their lives working on it, and it’s insulting to this body that adopted it with the intention that it would guide future development and city investment.” (From Brenda Konkel’s blog post on Forward Lookout, “What is going on with the city chief planning director?”, posted Feb. 6, 2013.)

Let PD’s Policy Committee know your thoughts on this! (brendakonkel@gmail.com; mtanglim@gmail.com) With the new Director of Planning, Community and Economic Development, Natalie Erdman, it is time to change these practices.