The proposed grocery is twice the size of the store envisioned for the site.
A proposal to build a Copp's grocery store on Madison's far east side has outraged dozens of residents who want the city to reject the plan, claiming it upends the new urbanist vision that spurred them to buy homes in the Grandview Commons neighborhood.
"New urbanism drew people to this community, and now they want to impose a big-box store in the middle of it," says Barbara Davis, referring to developer Veridian Homes. "It will detract from the quality of life."
Though a grocery store was always intended as a centerpiece of Grandview's yet undeveloped town center, the store's proposed size more than doubles the original footprint, from 25,000 to 58,000 square feet.
Residents say the store will bring unacceptable increases in noise and traffic. Aesthetically, they say, a big-box store with a big parking lot doesn't jibe with their idea of a pedestrian-friendly town center.
To move forward, the project needs Common Council approval to rezone the property -- sandwiched between Cottage Grove Road and Sharpsburg Way -- and amend the neighborhood and comprehensive plans.
City planning staff supports the proposal.
Scheduled votes by the Plan Commission and Common Council this month have been postponed to March to allow Veridian time to incorporate changes requested by the Urban Design Commission, which gave its initial approval on Feb. 15.
The proposal has deeply divided the neighborhood, with each side accusing the other of trying to undermine their respective campaigns.
'It's been very unpleasant," says Veridian president Jeff Rosenberg, accusing opponents of trafficking in misinformation. "They're working with their own set of facts."
But residents say Veridian has worked to silence their objections, noting that one of the developer's employees tried to void signatures on an opposition petition that began circulating after the first neighborhood meeting in February 2010.
Opponents also allege that Veridian has largely manufactured a perception of broad neighborhood support to win city approval. For example, elderly residents of an assisted-living facility on Jupiter Drive were encouraged (PDF) to send city officials one of four pre-approved letters, all in support of the store. Veridian denies prodding the facility to ask its residents, many of whom are on meal plans, to send the letters.
But the bottom line, residents say, is that Veridian is trying to deliver a neighborhood different from the one it pitched to homeowners.
"Is this really about doing a grand service to the people by bringing them something versus nothing?" asks Davis, who lives two blocks from the site. "Or is this a last-ditch effort to sell land they gobbled up during the real estate boom they thought they could turn over quickly, but has now become a liability?"
Grandview Commons' town center was originally envisioned as a 10.5-acre mix of retail, commercial and residential space that would include a small grocery store and public library. It was intended as a hub for civic life in the neighborhood, but a variety of forces have conspired to keep the property vacant.
Over the last 14 years, Veridian has tried to attract a small grocer, like Trader Joe's, but was rebuffed each time because the area lacks the density necessary to sustain a 25,000-square-foot grocery store.
In 2006, Veridian purchased an adjacent 5.5 acres that unexpectedly became available. This presented an opportunity to attract a larger store that would not only anchor the town center, but also signal a commitment to a full build-out. Some question that commitment since Veridian intends to sell rather than develop the property.
But to build a store like the 70,000-square-foot Copp's initially proposed for the site by Milwaukee-based Roundy's Supermarkets Inc., the property had to be rezoned.
Ald. Lauren Cnare understands residents' frustration but says it's either this or no town center at all. "I'm a realist," she says. "We can keep calling small stores and they can keep saying no."
Many accuse Cnare of doing Veridian's bidding. An April 2010 email discussion between her and Veridian Realtor Tonya Nye discusses a waiver signed by many Grandview homeowners precluding their right to protest any development projects undertaken in Grandview by Veridian. Nye suggested using this waiver to void signatures on a petition circulating at the time. After becoming aware of the waiver, Cnare, who says no signatures were invalidated, replied, "WOW! I will need a moment to think about how to incorporate this into the conversation."
Ald. Jill Johnson accuses Nye, who lives in the neighborhood, of violating the city's lobbying ordinance. "If employees of the developer are speaking out, they need to make clear they are employees," says Johnson, who has a handful of constituents who live within the project's notification zone.
Unlike Cnare, she opposes the project.
Cnare says Johnson is "complaining about" an issue that was settled prior to her April 2011 election.
"This is a red herring," says Cnare, who has decided not to run for reelection because of the acrimony that developed around this proposal. "What you're seeing is the persistence of misinformation."
Both Barbara Davis and Jill Johnson say residents would welcome a store as large as 40,000 square feet, the big-box threshold under city ordinance. "What's been really miserable about this is Verdian's unwillingness to negotiate," says Davis.
Rosenberg says Roundy's has already shaved 12,000 square feet from the store's footprint and scrapped a pharmacy drive-through, among other things. "They've done a very good job of trying to be a responsible citizen," he says, noting the store alone would create up to 180 jobs.
Adds Cnare, "A 40,000-square-foot store is not in the conversation, and it won't be." She says she struggles to understand why a 58,000-square-foot store "would be a death knell to what is a pretty cool neighborhood."
In January, a sleek but anonymously run website appeared where supporters could sign an online petition that generated an email to city officials. A four-page flyer delivered to residents advertised the site.
Inquiries sent through the site were answered by Grandview resident Richard Anderson, who says Veridian had nothing to do with the site or the flyer. "We're just grassroots supporters who were tired of the opposition speaking for us," he says.
He declined to say who built the site or printed the flyers.
Rosenberg, too, denies that Veridian has led a behind-the-scenes push to bolster support. "But let's say we had," he says. "Would that really be so evil?"
Rosenberg says there is a lot riding on the $20 million project. "If the city says no to this, it's going to be very difficult to get other developers to participate in future neighborhoods," he says.
Nonsense, says Johnson, who believes the push boils down to a land deal, since Veridian intends to sell off the property to an Appleton-based developer once it's rezoned. "It's a way for them to very quickly sell this piece of property," says Johnson, suggesting Veridian and Cnare should exercise more patience. "A smaller store will come once they build more homes."
Greg Cieslewicz, who lives across from the site in Richmond Hills, says residents are gathering signatures to force a supermajority vote when the proposal reaches the Common Council in March. City and state law allows for such petitions, if verified, to trigger a higher bar -- three-quarters of council members -- for passage of a zoning change, confirms City Attorney Michael May.
"The hope was to build a town center, and I think most of us would like to see that happen," Cieslewicz says. "But not at the expense of bad development. It's not a done deal yet."