The project includes 21 apartment units, with retail facing the Monroe Street side.
Aldermanic "courtesy" clashed with neighborhood interests at Tuesday night's Common Council meeting.
The aldermanic power walked away the clear, if battered, winner in a meeting that went to 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.
More than 70 residents of the Dudgeon Monroe neighborhood came to the meeting, asking the council to overturn a July 8 decision by the Plan Commission in favor of a four-story apartment and retail development by Rouse Management at Monroe and Knickerbocker Streets. The project (PDF) includes 21 apartment units, with retail facing the Monroe Street side. Enclosed parking will be above ground, exiting onto Knickerbocker Street.
After several hours of public testimony and debate, the council voted in favor of a modified approval of the project, rejecting the appeal. The council also voted against an effort to delay the issue for a month in hopes a modified compromise could be reached.
Ald. Sue Ellingson supports the development, saying it fits within the neighborhood's and city's plans. The project needs conditional approval because it exceeds the zoning limits for height and mass, but Ellingson characterized these as minor changes, telling the council: "If we're going to have smart growth in the city, this is what it looks like."
Neighbors object to three main aspects of the project, including that its height and mass exceeds zoning limits. They also worry it will increase traffic on Knickerbocker and put a strain on already scarce parking in the area.
Neighbor David Shaffer said the neighborhood is not against developing the site, but that their concerns have been sidestepped. He said Ellingson told neighbors in April they'd have plenty of chance to give input on the project, but few meetings were scheduled.
"We were told repeatedly, but incorrectly, that the proposal met all the requirements of the zoning code," he said. "There was no opportunity for informed input from the neighborhood until after the plans were submitted."
Shaffer added: "What was not a rush for our alder on April 14, was a done deal less than three months later."
Marcia Diamond, a member of the Dudgeon Monroe Neighborhood Association, said the association took a rare stand against the project because opposition was so strong.
"The voice of neighborhood associations used to be heard clearly in this city," she said. "Madison's neighborhoods are the very soul of this city. They are the source of the character and charm that make Madison a place where people want to live."
She says that Dudgeon Monroe works well with a balance between residential and commercial elements. She added: "This project is destructive to that balance."
After failing to get Ellingson to take up its case, the neighborhood reached out to other council members, some of whom tried to mediate. Some alders thought this was an offensive breach of protocol.
Ald. Joe Clausius said: "I would never ever meddle in another alder's district."
But others said it wasn't meddling to learn about a project in a different district and vote accordingly. "To me, aldermanic courtesy is knowing that the alder knows the neighborhood and the residents," said Ald. Mark Clear. "Ald. Ellingson's opinion is influential but only a certain amount of deference is owed."
Ald. David Ahrens said he disagreed with the neighborhood on every point it has raised. "Nonetheless, I'm going to vote for the appeal," he said. "That's based not on the merits, but on the very fact of the density of the opposition to the project. I cannot say [the opposition] doesn't matter."
Ellingson said the strong opposition surprised her. She characterized the project as essentially a three-story building, since the fourth floor will be lofts that are set back.
"This pretty much is a three-story building on Monroe Street," she said. "It was so surprising to me, people were telling me how massive this three-story building on Monroe Street was."
In addition to the efforts to delay the decision, there were efforts by council members to require a traffic light at the intersection, remove the top floor and move the driveway to Monroe Street. All of them failed.
Ellingson proposed some minor modifications to the project, which the council approved 15 to 3. Her conditions include getting the developer to pay for traffic calming on Knickerbocker and a pedestrian island in front of the project on Monroe. A few alders added that they would not support a liquor license for any retail business that goes into the development.
David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize winning author who lives next to the project on Knickerbocker, told the council that the debate isn't just about this project, but about neighborhood rights.
"There's been a not-so-subtle effort over the past few years to quiet the voices of neighborhoods, isolate them, diminish them as nothing more than a few malcontents who don't understand urban planning," he said. "If this keeps going at some point, you have isolated and dismissed every neighborhood in the city."
"I'm sorry that so many people were unhappy with this," Ellingson said after the meeting. "In my opinion, it was the right thing to do because it is what is called for in the two plans that cover the area. We need this kind of smart growth in the city."