What You are in For

I have spent more than three years following development issues in Madison and Dane County. I was asked soon after I started if I’d have anything to do after the Inclusionary Zoning issue was decided – the focus of my job in many people’s eyes. Whereas the IZ battle was indeed an incredibly important issue for residential developers, by no means did the death knell for IZ mean the end of important ongoing issues that impact the development community.

Issues that have emerged (thus keeping me gainfully employed) include the Downtown Master Plan, the Economic Development Implementation work plan, new housing initiatives, sustainability proposals, Tax Incremental Financing policy, a Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission Waterbody Classification project, transportation issues, and other assorted policy considerations. This blog is solely my personal reflection on these issues… but it is fair to say I’m predisposed toward promotion of good development in Dane County.

One of the most important efforts underway right now is the Madison Zoning Code Rewrite. I cannot overstate how critical this is due to the significant impact it will have on future development and the infamous Madison process.

Someone made a crack at the last Urban Design Commission (UDC) about the fact that the UDC is recommending restricting message centers to one change per hour (for the non-signage types, think banks that tell you the time, temperature, CD rates, etc in a concurrent messages; yeah, you’d have a wait for an hour if you want to see the time AND the temperature. If it flashes more, you might run into the curb because it’s distracting). The current allowable change time in between messages is two minutes, so they are recommending a 2,900% increase.

The speaker noted that the unreasonably restrictive change time was about on par with the speed of getting things done in Madison. Considering the fact that this was during the Chapter 31 rewrite debate, which has taken 12 years to almost complete (still not quite done), I chortled. I cannot even begin to image the time horizon for the Zoning Code rewrite. I hope we wrap it up in less than a decade.

Which brings me back to a concern I have with the direction the Zoning Code rewrite is heading. If you’ve tried to develop in Madison, particularly a redevelopment, you would probably agree that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of “neighborhood” dictation of projects. That sense of entitlement has pervaded the discussions at the Zoning Code Rewrite Advisory Committee (fondly dubbed “ZCRAC”). Having said that, I will clarify that I am not advocating for the removal of neighborhood input and communication throughout the process; those are critical elements of a project. It is, however, simply unacceptable to create a shadow plan department consisting of vocal people that may or may not be representative of the wishes of the majority of people in the neighborhood.

The developers have the responsibility to notify and meet with neighbors, as well they should. However, the professionals in Madison’s Planning Department are that: professionals. The Common Council still also has to decide to approve the projects based on the recommendations of the professional staff, the input from neighborhoods, and the merits of a project as it stands to benefit the greater good of the City.

Part of making this process smoother is having an up-to-date zoning code. Does this mean developing a project in Madison will suddenly be a cakewalk? Not so much; Madison values process, which has its merits. However, neighbors may feel less threatened by development if we have a code that reflects what is on the ground while enabling developers to do projects without the overuse of Planned Unit Developments (PUD), a process that allows developers to circumvent underlying zoning. Ideally that will create more predictability for everyone involved, and the pendulum can hang out more in the middle.

It’s always a balancing act, and I’ll be teetering along the tightrope with the rest of the ZCRACers. Stay tuned….