Gregory Humphrey at Caffeinated Politics
Is the coop merely using the reconstruction as an excuse to build the driveway it has wanted all along?
In 1998, when the Willy Street Co-op bought the former Eagles Club for its current location on Williamson Street, it wanted to build a driveway onto Jenifer Street. (The Eagles Club actually had two exits onto Jenifer, but relatively little traffic.)
But adjacent neighbors wouldn't sign off on the co-op's required zoning change if a driveway was built. It was only after the coop promised not to build a driveway that the neighbors agreed to the zoning change. But apparently no documentation of that promise was written into the zoning change approved by the Madison Plan Commission.
Regardless of what was written into the record, the coop has long felt it could not build a driveway. For instance, operations manager Dan Frost wrote in the co-op's newsletter for April 2004, "We agreed with the wishes of the city and those who would become our immediate neighbors not to put a driveway on Jenifer Street. That conditional use still governs how our property is zoned (and thus how we can use it)."
In September 2008, general manager Anya Firszt wrote: "Owners [Coop-speak for members] have repeatedly suggested the driveway idea, but an earlier Plan Commission decision to restrict our ability to add a driveway onto Jenifer Street has left us with little hope of ever seeing it happen."
With the upcoming reconstruction of Williamson Street, the co-op once again broached the subject of a driveway onto Jenifer. This time, its investigation revealed no actual conditions on its use of the property, thus permitting it to build a driveway upon approval of several permits, none of which required a hearing.
The co-op then notified its nearby neighbors of its driveway plans and called a meeting to get input. The vast majority of those who attended the Aug. 16 meeting spoke out against the plan. Nonetheless, at its board meeting the following day, the co-op announced that "we are still installing a permanent egress." It applied for its permits the following week.
Driveway opponents, although not allowed to talk to shoppers on co-op property, gathered several hundred signatures in a few hours' time and now have an online petition.
Overall community support seems to hinge on whether a driveway built to deal with the potential chaos of Williamson Street's reconstruction will be temporary or permanent. Many people, including the board of the Marquette Neighborhood Association, have opposed a permanent driveway, but support a temporary one.
But city rules don't permit construction of driveways using such "temporary" materials as gravel or dirt. So the co-op plans to build a permanent driveway, and the likelihood that a driveway built of concrete or asphalt will be removed following the reconstruction is remote.
Further, if the driveway is only needed to deal with reconstruction hassles, why is it being built six months before construction begins? Is the co-op merely using the reconstruction as an excuse to build the driveway it has wanted all along?
According to the co-op, the driveway onto Jenifer will "increase safety." This is certainly not true. Safety for whom? Having cars enter and exit a busy parking lot at two mid-block locations is less safe than having only one.
During the reconstruction, it will arguably be easier to enter and exit on the Williamson Street side, as traffic will be moving in only one direction.
How will having cars traversing a new driveway onto Jenifer increase safety for the pedestrians and bicyclists who currently use the bike path into the property, or for those who walk down the sidewalk, including kids walking to Marquette School down the street?
It's ironic that the co-op is encouraging more car traffic, at a time when more people are aware of the realities of peak oil and climate change. The reality is that if you make it easier to drive, more people will drive.
At its former location on the corner of Few and Williamson Streets, the co-op only had about four dedicated parking spots. Yet as soon as the coop moved across the street with its 50-plus parking spots, the parking lot was full.
The co-op should also work with the city to discourage through-commuter use of the Williamson Street corridor during reconstruction. It should urge the city to channel traffic onto East Washington Avenue by eliminating the free-flow lane at John Nolen Drive and Blair Street and by prohibiting left turns from the right lane of Atwood Avenue at Schenks Corners.
Street reconstructions strike fear in the hearts of affected businesses, with bloated predictions of 30%-40% revenue losses. But those businesses should realize that only motorists are seriously affected by street work, and give shoppers incentives to arrive by other means, such as the Bicycle Benefits program.
Since the street reconstruction will not begin until at least 2011, the co-op should postpone constructing any driveway at least until next spring, as Ald. Marsha Rummel has urged. It should commit in writing to remove the temporary driveway following the Williamson Street reconstruction. And it needs to abandon plans to divert storm water into storm sewers rather than into the rain garden as done currently.
Because the co-op sells healthy and organic food, members generally give it the "benefit of the doubt" in many matters. But with the recent Metropolitan Place II fiasco, when the co-op lost over half a million dollars, members need to better examine the decisions of the operations team. The co-op board of directors needs to better oversee management decisions that affect and change the policies and philosophy of the co-op.
However, if the co-op builds a permanent driveway onto Jenifer Street, violating its promise to the neighbors that enabled it to get the zoning change, and against the request of the alder and several neighborhood associations, it risks losing much of the support that has made it successful and traditionally differentiated it from Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or even Wal-Mart.
Tim Wong is a longtime transportation analyst who served on the Madison Transit and Parking Commission for five years.