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« Gerry Falwell, The Antichrist, Communing with Satan: Madison | Main | Madison Up or Out, Revisited »

May 16, 2007

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Jess Wundrun

Having lived in Richmond, Virginia, I can tell you that I am for the height limits on buildings. Both the capital of Virginia and the historic capital of the Confederacy are smooshed in a little island of grass just off of I-95. It looks like a city with no pride, and as a former citizen there it felt as though lifetime Virginia citizens had no idea of the historic significance of all that occurred on that spot of soil now engulfed by buildings and the mammoth and hideous Virginia Medical Hospital.

Just sayin'.

But Mr. Soglin, if you're concerned about developers leaving Madison, why did you endorse a candidate in district 11 who said he would've voted against the development at Midvale Plaza and who was receiving support from the people who were anti-Hilldale development? Doesn't that sort of undercut your point?

gary van ess

Madison's number one attribute, by far, is the mostly unobstructed view of that beautiful Capitol building, especially at night as you are coming into the city from miles away. Keep the height limits - or lose the soul of Madison.

Dan Sebald

I agree with Gary. Madison shouldn't mess with a good thing. Density is good (when done right) but that can be carried to extremes just as sprawl is the other extreme. I doubt Madison will ever be able to achieve the density of Chicago, constrained as it is to an isthmus with limited good ground water. And I doubt the majority of residents will ever want that. (I like Chi-town, but I certainly don't want Madison to have a land fill like on the south end of Lake Michigan. "That is the capitol, and that over there in the distance is our land fill.") Some bigger buildings are fine downtown, in my opinion, and there is some room for more but there is always a balance to strike. If things are too dense, then it becomes a logistical nightmare and the streets are a harried mess especially if the automobile becomes more and more prevalent, which it is. Soon as that happens, Madison isn't Madison anymore.

(I'd argue another thing to protect is the natural setting of Lake Wingra and the Arboretum, but development interests are seeping in there as well. I digress.)

However, as the city radiates outward there is plenty of room to build up and maintain the capitol view. Why couldn't the West Town area have been more urban? How about East Town area? Bicycle (or drive) around the Hilldale area. There are many many single story banks or two story office buildings there. Paul pointed out previously that mass transit works best when it connects things. Maybe there are other parts of the city than can take on density as well. But that's not what we've gotten. Look at the west side of the belt line, 100% automobile oriented. North of I-90 toward Sun Prairie? 100% automobile oriented, sprawling business park, a monumental car dealership with lights so bright one can stand at the capitol steps and see the dealership light up the night sky seven, eight miles away. (And in Middleton off Airport Road there too now is car dealership after dealership, positioned perfectly for all the people using the new four lane highway... which I recall wasn't supposed to have much impact on sprawl.) Fitchburg, Verona, Middleton? They are ruining the very thing that made them nice.

It's my belief that Madisonians like good mixed use. The problem with so many of the infill developments is that they are all condos (with lots of underground parking, i.e., more cars). Rather than including interesting, inviting, functional retail and commercial space on the ground floor, the goal appears to be to make as many condos as possible and sell them off right away. Retail space is apparently not as lucrative to developers. (If I'm wrong, please someone correct me on that.) I would argue that Paul's first bullet point is already true of the infill projects I've seen; those developers also have profit margins on their minds as do out-of-town developers.

Of the infill projects I've seen so far, I'd say that Hilldale Phase II is the one case where city process has resulted in a developer willing to go with a vision that fits the high density, mixed use concept. (Phase I really wasn't that much of a change from what was already there.) In other locations, we've had developers come to the process with an already completed building design that doesn't necessarily suit the site and neighborhood. At that point the developer isn't willing to make changes because that would add extra cost. (And sometimes it doesn't take too many changes to make things work.) The city committees don't really make big demands; eventually they've gone along with most anything. Hence, it is an outside developer, Freed, that has shown some flexibility, after trying to buck the system that is.

And somehow the neighborhood is blamed for holding the city and developers hostage because they ask for a grocery store to buy food to eat. If all there is is condos, without retail, entertainment, etc. who will want to live here? People say this is the reason developers go to Fitchburg and other parts of Dane County, but really they go there for the same reason it's always been, cheaper land, easier to build flatter buildings, i.e., cost. And it comes back to the lack of regional planning that Paul mentioned in a blog months ago. It takes commitment on part of county/state politicians and city planners to come up with zoning and taxing laws that result in greater density, or as Paul puts it "more efficient environmental densities", efficiency being an important word here.

If you build it, they won't necessarily come. Infill projects need to be well done. People need incentives to stay within the city, e.g., a neighborhood school. The goal should be an efficient city in terms of energy consumption, quality of life, so on. Some of these are difficult to quantize, but inefficiency is easy to recognize. Place some higher density housing in a corn field where people must drive five miles for groceries--inefficient. If the city allows a high density condo towering over the capitol downtown where people still need to drive to Woodmans for groceries--also inefficient.

In a long winded way I guess I'm agreeing with the notion that a lack of a clear vision, direction and plan for future development is an issue. (Also, I have much more appreciation of city planners from centuries past like Nolan.) But at the same time I'm trying to make a point that Madisonians want input on their living conditions, and developers have to make some concessions. If it is "take it or leave it", my guess is that people will leave it.

I do like in Mike Ivey's article that Paul suggested a computer study of capitol views, etc. Not even that much seems to happen on some of these infill projects.

The worst thing to happen to Madison was being ranked number 1 in some poll somewhere. As a result we've seen unfettered and unplanned growth with an infrastructure not prepared for such growth.

Chris Schmidt

>>But Mr. Soglin, if you're concerned about developers leaving Madison, why did you endorse a candidate in district 11 who said he would've voted against the development at Midvale Plaza and who was receiving support from the people who were anti-Hilldale development? Doesn't that sort of undercut your point?<<

As that candidate I'd like to clarify my position for this anonymous poster. I received support from a wide range of people, both people who supported and people who opposed the redevelopments at Midvale Plaza (now Sequoya Commons) and Hilldale. The poster's spin on my candidacy is pretty typical of a certain group of my opponent's supporters. They know better.

I ran because I felt the process for bringing the community into the redevelopments, especially at Midvale, was very flawed. My feelings about the details of Sequoya Commons were secondary to the issue of process. I also ran because I felt that we need to pay more attention to our basic city functions and services. The results of the election showed that a large number of people agreed with me. It was the highest turn-out race in the city at around 50%, and the incumbent won by 31 votes, less than 1%. There is a desire in the 11th for different priorities than what we saw in the last 2 years.

I would have voted against the specific plan that did get passed, but that doesn't mean I oppose redevelopment nor does it mean I somehow support suburban sprawl. I think that a 3 story Sequoya Commons could have been quite successful, and it would have at least partially addressed the concerns of the neighborhood. I wanted to see redevelopment at the site, and we knew the library was guaranteed. The city had set aside the money for the "box" a couple years back, and 3 stories versus 4 wasn't going to change that. But more importantly I believe an Alder needs to be the liaison between the community and the developer and city, but in the case of Sequoya Commons the community became "the opposition" and to this day some supporters of Sequoya Commons still denigrate the residents of Westmorland, despite the fact that the neighborhood has largely put the issue behind them and is working with the developer and the library to ensure the project goes smoothly. Westmorland is also undertaking a Neighborhood Plan as suggested during the discussions last year. Most of the city lacks this kind of neighborhood involvement in the planning process, which doesn't help the uncertainty issue that Paul raised.

Madison has a role to play in controlling sprawl and limiting the loss of open space in the county, but 20 or so units in the middle of a sea of ranch houses won't make or break efforts that are set back to a much, much greater degree by approving more traditional low-density development at the fringes of the city. And Madison cannot control the actions of the other municipalities in Dane County.

I agree with Paul, computer models of new projects should be a part of our process. It will take some time to put together the models of the current neighborhoods and city. They don't need to be exact, and images of building can be applied to simplified box models to give detail. This is something that anyone can do with Google Sketchup and Google Earth, and since there are already CAD models of new buildings putting new buildings into the city model should be straightforward. Consultants often do this already, and have made models of parts of the city that could be put together into a master model of the city. For all I know someone already has one of those.

Dan Sebald

Insightful Chris. Good point about the city approving low density on the outskirts of the city vs. high density on a few acres. But the project is still important for a couple reasons. One, Sequoya Commons will be high density, which fits in with the concept of infill. Two, this would be a completely open four or five acres (or whatever it is, i.e., pretty big area) with wide roads on two sides and visibility on all four sides; a dream site to build a wonderful project with architecture to enhance the neighborhood, a library, etc. There definitely were supporters of the project hoping for something really nice for the neighborhood and shared the concerns the neighborhood had.

Yes, the process was flawed, and Alder Compton acknowledged that when it came down to crunch time at the city council. But let's be fair in assessing where the flaws were in the process, which is all sides (city, developer, neighborhood). What happened with the neighborhood is one small faction seemed to take over the process and their position was one of opposition. Other voices of the neighborhood weren't heard, and most importantly the opposition position could not put forth any concrete desires and ask for anything (except maybe one person regarding traffic and lights in neighbor's windows, and asking that the post office remain). I can recall the plan commission meeting where alders asked the neighborhood group what the business tenants views and needs were. No response. That was not a good sign.

I understand the neighborhood should have been forewarned about expectations and preparedness (Compton's point at the time), but that is what was missing. Ask and demand stuff that the neighborhood would like; it can't all be opposition. So, the neighborhood may have become "the opposition", but that is because they put themselves in that position, or I should say some small group of people put the whole neighborhood in that position.

Chris Schmidt

Dan,

I don't deny that the project is important, and neither do the people who live near it. There is no disagreement that the Plaza needed redevelopment. In response I wish to raise a few points:

1) The neighborhood's opinions on the development were hardly monolithic, but in the end about 25% of the Westmorland neighborhood (and a similar fraction of the Midvale Heights neighborhood) signed petitions asking for a compromise solution. That is a huge turnout for a neighborhood effort, and it was accomplished during winter months by volunteers who had no experience with getting petitions signed.
2) The Midvale Plaza Steering Committee did present an alternate plan and asked for compromise between what they put forward and the plans that had been submitted. It wasn't simply opposition, there was an effort to reach a compromise and that is documented in e-mails they exchanged with the Alder, among others. The efforts were made in advance of the meetings when things were passed.
3) There are always going to be voices that were not heard, but that neither invalidates the positions of the supporters nor the opponents of a given project. We cannot make a credible argument based on hypothesizing about the positions of those who remain silent, we can only make efforts to engage them.

I think the point bears repeating, the "opposition" was not a minority group. In fact I can say with a great level of certainty, as someone who spoke to residents of upwards of half the households in Westmorland since January, there was an overwhelming majority who wished to see a compromise solution or otherwise felt that the neighborhood's concerns had been set aside with prejudice. Abating that anger and redirecting it into productive action is an ongoing challenge for us. As part of that we're undertaking the development of a neighborhood plan as quickly as is manageable so that we do not find ourselves yet again in that position.

And the neighborhood plan issue raises a key yet subtle point. A common response to the efforts of the Midvale Plaza neighbors was "You should have a neighborhood plan." (or the corollary, "Where were you when we developed the Comprehensive Plan?") Neither the lack of a Neighborhood Plan nor lack of prior involvement in the Comprehensive Plan invalidates the concerns about - or for that matter support for - the project. Most neighborhoods lack a neighborhood plan, and many have no infrastructure to generate one, so making that a requirement for having an opinion on redevelopment activities within the neighborhood is poor governance at best.

I can't speak to what you witnessed as I do not know to which meeting you refer, but the Steering Committee did have representatives at the Plan Commission and UDC meetings where the proposal was passed, IIRC they made presentations at those meetings and that group had been in contact and working with the business owners at the Plaza as well as the owner of the apartments next door and the church across the street since early in the process. They put forward a tremendous effort, and rather than being dismissed it really deserves the level of respect that downtown and near eastside neighborhood activism has received, even if the outcome was not in their favor.

As a point of information, while the Midvale Plaza Steering Committee was representing the interests of the Westmorland Neighborhood Association last year [in conjunction with Midvale Heights], now that the project is underway the liaison function has passed to the new WNA Planning and Development Committee (aka Future Westmorland). The primary function of the WNAPDC is to develop the Neighborhood Plan, and most of our effort goes there. My job as co-chair of the committee is to be the liaison with the Sequoya Commons development and keep that work from distracting the committee from its main task of writing the Neighborhood Plan.

PS I haven't said much about the architecture of the project itself, but I will say this: it isn't bad, however I'd say it enhances the neighborhood more as an improvement over the current structure than as a piece of architecture itself. My feeling is that we see precious little truly great new architecture, not because the architects lack the skill but rather because the competing demands on design tend to limit their options.

Dan Sebald

Chris

Thanks for the summary, and I'm glad to see organization continues in Westmorland neighborhood. I believe all you've said regarding the neighborhood's efforts on the Tokay/Midvale project; the problem is that effort didn't translate very well to the meetings when votes were cast. It just seemed to me that neighborhood testimony was sometimes patronizing rather than asking for specific items in the project on the table. As a result, the neighborhood lost the confidence of those people casting the votes; people who haven't seen all the work that has gone on behind the scenes.

"My feeling is that we see precious little truly great new architecture,"

Same here.

"not because the architects lack the skill but rather because the competing demands on design tend to limit their options."

Eh, make them build nice buildings.

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