On the brink of change

At Smart Growth Greater Madison, Matt Brink lobbies on behalf of developers.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Whether or not Matt Brink, 36, was born with the power of persuasion is a question more for his developer-father, Curt, but now he’s making a living doing so. At one point, the executive director at Smart Growth Greater Madison considered persuading juries as a lawyer, but now he’s a registered lobbyist with the city of Madison, working on behalf of commercial developers and keeping a sharp eye on anything that might adversely affect their projects.

The former general manager of the Brink Lounge always enjoyed politics, and in fact ran for District 1 Alder in 2015. He lost, but the experience, he says, was positive and only deepened his desire to become more involved in the community.

“When the Smart Growth opportunity came along, I wasn’t an architect or an engineer, but it offered a perfect blend of development and politics,” Brink states.

Recently, we asked him about construction and development in this growing capital city.

IB: What are the hot buttons Smart Growth is watching?
In the next 20 years or so, all indications are that Madison will grow by 40,000 to 50,000 people. We know how much the rents and single-family homes are going up in price, as well as the cost of land, labor, and materials. The issue is how do we put forth enough units to meet future demands and yet make housing affordable? You don’t want gentrification in the city, where only the wealthy can afford to live downtown.

Anyone spending more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent or a mortgage is cost-burdened, and their numbers are increasing. This, as well as safety, I believe, will be a cornerstone topic in the next mayoral race.

IB: So, the answer is?
Density, whenever and wherever possible. It’s the best non-city subsidized way to provide a path toward affordability. But when neighborhoods or associations create hurdles by asking that projects be altered from, say, four stories to three stories, it impacts timelines, costs, and per-unit affordability.

IB: Give an example, please.
One of our members just got a development approved along Johnson Street, but it’s taken 18 months to get to this point. By the time it’s completed, it will have taken 30 months for 54 apartments. That’s just not acceptable.

The process needs to be streamlined. The city is blessed with hundreds of smart and brilliant people involved in planning and zoning who will vet a project appropriately and catch bad projects, as they should. Perhaps their recommendations should carry more weight.



IB: Do neighborhoods or associations have too much pull?
No, their input is invaluable and often leads to better projects. But from a developer’s standpoint, if we keep putting barriers up, or artificially shave off floors, all that backs into what has to be charged per unit in order to finance the deal, and it pushes the goal of affordability further down the road.

IB: What’s at risk?
We don’t want to create further incentives for development to move elsewhere, but if a developer sees a 30-month time frame to build 54 units versus 18 to 24 months to build 60, they’re going to opt for fewer headaches.

IB: What causes these delays?
Often it’s trying to reach a compromise between what a neighborhood plan calls for and what the city’s zoning or the comprehensive plan allows for. City comprehensive plans are mandated by state statute to be updated every 10 years. Neighborhood plans are not, yet they’re a formal supplement to comprehensive plans. Many neighborhood plans are 10, 20 years old. In my opinion, they should be updated every five years.

IB: What other challenges do you see?
Madison’s amenities are beyond compare, but personally, I don’t like the criminal element that’s affecting some of our most cherished assets, like State Street. Unfortunately, these are the realities of a growing city.

The charming, sleepy Madison we all knew is changing, and that’s tough for many to understand. We have to shift our focus and meet that future demand in a responsible and timely manner.

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