As Madison's new downtown plan wends its way through the political process, it is sparking a backstage tussle that could have profound implications for future projects.
A bevy of local developers and their advocates have reacted badly to the plan, which is now in draft form and headed for adoption this year, and are pressing for changes.
"The downtown plan fails at its inception," says Ron Trachtenberg, a former alder and attorney who often represents developers. "While the downtown plan offers a not unpleasant [vision], it fails to determine whether [this] meets the needs and demands of the market."
Of particular concern is that the plan codifies rules regarding building heights and setback requirements. Sue Springman of the Mullins Group says that "the height restrictions in certain areas will stifle creativity and make the downtown too 'vanilla box.'"
The Mullins Group and others, including Goldleaf Development, Gebhardt Development, the Alexander Company and the Edgewater's neighbor, National Guardian Life, have filed formal responses with the city, objecting to certain parts of the plan. And Janine Punzel, vice president of Hovde Properties, says her firm has been working on a response with Downtown Madison Inc. (DMI).
Ald. Mike Verveer, whose district encompasses much of the downtown, fears the plan is being seen as a "golden opportunity" for developers to bypass the city's existing zoning code and height limits in the campus area.
"Developers have tried and failed over the years to get the height limit amended," says Verveer. "[They've looked] for sympathetic alders and have had no takers. They've tried different lobbyists to try to achieve those means, and had no luck. So their latest attempt will be with this document."
The result, says Verveer, could potentially be "a wall of tall buildings along the lake. You could call it an Edgewater domino effect."
The city's last downtown plan was approved in 1989. The current draft plan (PDF), a 51-page document, was released in September 2010. It was created after many meetings with downtown residents, business owners and organizations.
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is generally pleased with the plan. "There are still some issues, though," he says. "I understand there's still some work that needs to be done." Still, he hopes to put a final draft before the Common Council this winter or early spring.
When the plan was released, the media focused on its splashy ideas to construct a shoreline path running from James Madison Park to the Memorial Union, and to expand Law Park. But there's a lot more to the plan than that.
A comprehensive transportation study is recommended, to turn portions of one-way streets to two-way. An additional 5,000 housing units are anticipated by the planning department over the next 25 years, and a "significant amount of new development" will be accommodated in the West Mifflin Street area.
A new park is suggested between North Bassett, Marion, West Johnson and West Dayton streets. Nearby the plan encourages "more intense development." Other sites identified for redevelopment include the forecourt of the Madison Area Technical College, the corner of the Capitol Square occupied by the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum, and the parking lot of the Kastenmeier federal courthouse.
The draft significantly boosts preservation, recommending additional historic building designations as well as new historic districts and similar neighborhood conservation districts.
Many plan recommendations deal with the downtown's appearance. Gateway streets are to be beautified and "postcard views" of the skyline preserved. While city and state laws limit heights to protect views of the Capitol, the draft plan notes that "over time, buildings have been constructed to this limit resulting in a 'table topping' of the skyline that masks the underlying topography and pinches view corridors to and from the Capitol Square."
To prevent further table-topping, varied heights are recommended across the isthmus.
That's where the plan is proving controversial, with developers wanting the right to secure exceptions for particular projects.
"We would hope the plan would be and remain flexible," says Margaret Watson, chief operating officer for Steve Brown Apartments. "Height, density and architectural style should all be considered when evaluating a project."
Indeed, flexibility emerges as the new desire of developers who have complained loudly in the past about the need for predictability. They don't want to get rid of Planned Unit Development (PUD), a way of working around existing zoning by creating zoning code specific to a given project. Virtually every large downtown development in the last 20 years has been created with PUD.
PUD is sloppy; it involves negotiation, public hearings and review by numerous commissions, and it often creates delays. But it's flexible.
Adam Plotkin, president of Capitol Neighborhoods Inc., an umbrella group of downtown neighborhood districts, says that "rather than 'predictability,' since the release of the draft, the tune has changed to [developers] wanting 'flexibility.' I don't see how the two can be reconciled. They seem to want to know what to expect, as well as the ability to do whatever they want."
Since 2001, there have been four design areas with mandated height limits near campus. They cannot be changed, even with PUD.
"From our perspective, that's worked very well for us," says Bill Fruhling, a principal planner with the Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development.
But Verveer notes that "the developers just hate that. They hate it with a passion. The fact that...they can only build to 12 stories on these specific blocks, the setback has to be so many feet. They would prefer that those strict zoning requirements not be there." He says their goal is to weaken height limits, especially in the design districts.
Fruhling and Verveer doubt that any significant height changes will be made to the draft by planning staff. However, says Verveer, "I think it's more likely that any major changes will occur at the political level. That's what I'm bracing myself for: the lobbying campaign that I think we're going to experience through much of 2011."
Verveer expects the issues to be similar to those raised over the Edgewater Hotel, but with more players and with implications for a larger area.
"This could end up being a bit of a battle royal," he says. "I certainly don't think you're too off base if you say it could mean more council all-nighters."