Downtown Plan, again – this time … with a herring!

Anyone who has ever watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail knows that at one point King Arthur is instructed by the Knights Who Say Ni! to “cut down the mightiest tree in the forest … with a herring!” Since Arthur and his knights had just returned from fulfilling the first request, which was to procure shrubbery, they were quite discouraged. It doesn’t take a big leap of logic to figure out that chopping down a tree of any size with a herring is pretty much not going to happen.

You may be thinking, great movie, Carole, but weren’t you going to talk about the Downtown Plan? Well, I couldn’t help but think after reading the Downtown Plan that it reminded me of that scene. Yes, the plan calls for strengthening our economic engine and says we have room to grow, but the people who are going to be asked to implement the plan (e.g., developers, builders, architects, etc.) need to have the proper tools to bring those goals to fruition. And these professionals, through organizations like Downtown Madison, Inc., and Smart Growth Greater Madison, have said throughout the Downtown Plan process that it needs flexibility in allowable height, a balance between preservation and innovation, and recognition of economic feasibility in order to be successful. Otherwise meeting the goals of the plan will be about as likely as felling the mightiest tree in the forest with a fish. And if you’ve ever done development in Madison, you know you definitely got the shrubbery request first.

Say you are part of a development team discussing a potential redevelopment project in a downtown district. This conversation could actually occur if the plan and zoning code are unchanged:

“We want to tear down our old, obsolete, six-story apartment building and replace it with a 10-story, sustainable apartment building.”

“Great, but that building is in a historic district, and your building has been identified as a potential landmark. It is also in an urban design district, which means you have to include certain stepbacks and setbacks, and you can’t go over five stories unless you have outstanding architecture, and an interesting building top. Then you can go to seven. But you have to incorporate the potential landmark into the project.”

“But to finance a building with all the required features of an urban design and historic district with a potential landmark in it will cost me a fortune, and I’d need at least eight stories to make it financially feasible.”

“Well, you can’t exceed seven stories legally. Although we may work with the potential landmark issue, you will have to wait until we’ve gotten through the 1998 Landmarks Report and made a decision on designation before we’ll know with any certainty that you could proceed.”

“What about the planned development process? That’s been used in other parts of the city.”
“Yeah, we sort of changed that in the zoning code. Plus, you are in an urban design district, so you can’t use that tool to exceed heights either way.”

“Oh, can I get a herring with that?” (Okay, not that part.)

Obviously, that conversation would take several years and be referred to 14 committees.

In all seriousness, the Plan for Downtown needs to incorporate flexibility for development. Not all buildings are going to be tall buildings. Many of the developers I speak to say in areas such as the Bassett Neighborhood most of the redevelopment will probably stay in the two- to four-story range, with maybe a five or six if it makes sense. But for that to happen, the city needs to repeal the planned district development language that takes away the ability to exceed the height maximums in downtown districts. It should also take a hard look at the urban design districts and make modifications to allow for some additional height and flexibility in standards. Keep in mind there is always going to be the state law that governs heights in the Capitol view – no one is challenging that.

The reference to potential landmarks comes from a part of the plan that calls for treating “potential landmarks” much like an officially designated landmark. These potential landmarks were identified in a 1998 report that the city was supposed to use to determine which buildings met the criteria to be designated a landmark. However, that step was not completed, and now all the buildings that are potentially eligible are lumped together in the Downtown Plan. Why does this matter? Well, if a building is a landmark, you need to get special permission from the Landmarks Commission to do anything with the building. If you treat a potential landmark with the same clout, it essentially seriously limits what you can do with a building, even if it ends up not receiving the official designation.

Most of you are probably not developers. But even if we’re not builders or developers, we as residents of the Greater Madison area should care very much what happens to downtown. It is the heart of the region. We want a strong and thriving downtown, because it reflects on the health of the whole region. There are some great things in the Downtown Plan, such as the focus on access to the lakes, that many people would love to see happen. Imagine if you could boat up to a concert on the shore of Lake Monona, park your boat, and go grab some dinner downtown. There is cool stuff like that in the plan, but it will take money and infrastructure to build. When you see a building go up, think of it as a piggy bank that will fund things ranging from schools to public infrastructure and amenities – because if you don’t create new tax base, your services and infrastructure suffer and/or your taxes go up.

This plan will be going through various committees and commissions throughout January and February. So please contact your alders and the mayor and tell them to make sure the Downtown Plan gives the people implementing the goals of the plan the tools to do it right!

The meeting schedule and plan are all available on the city of Madison’s website.

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