Hmmm . . . last night the council meeting really only dealt with one (or two) issues. The main issue of the night was a development on Iota Court. What was stunning – was what the Director of Planning and Community and Economic Development had to say about planning in our city! (with bk comments)
The issue went on and on . . . about 3 hours a testimony, typical testimony, developer and all their paid people in favor of the project, neighbors against. This was kind of impressive because the folks against in this case were coops, sororities, the students in the neighborhood and the homeowners in the neighborhood – which was a slam dunk in the Langdon neighborhood and not exactly typical.
Around quarter to 10, the council started asking questions and discussing. Here’s the relevant parts of that.
QUESTIONS OF STAFF
Alder Scott Resnick asks the devleoper a question about perspectives of the drawings.
Alder Sue Ellingson asks why staff had a recommendation against the project.
Bill Fruhling steps up to answer the question (been with the city at least 15 years, probably more – he worked hard on the Downtown Plan for years). He says that when the city staff did the analysis of this iteration and the one before they concluded that they couldn’t find that the criteria for approval had been met. Primarily it had to do with not being consistent with the recommendations of the Downtown Plan, the Downtown Plan has a number of broad objectives and recommendations but the Downtown as a whole in trying to describe the role we want the downtown to play and the overall role and nature of it. The way the plan is structured is those broader objectives and recommendations really funnel down to the neighborhood specific recommendations and the section for the Langdon neighborhood really talks about preserving that finer grain of development. It talks about higher density development but it should not be on sites that have buildings that are contributing to the National Historic Register District. So we, as staff, couldn’t end up concluding that it met all the standards primarily for that reason.
Ellingson asks about the buildings being run down? Did you consider that.
Fruhling says yes, we have been in those buildings before and they could use some work. There has been some talk about the intention of this area with the bonus stories and the way we thought about it and the way they thought was really clear, but maybe not, was that there are some of these areas that have a very large footprint block, it is larger than standard block because it is a lakefront block and it is very deep and because of the slope down to the lake some of those blocks we thought there could be additional height in the center of the block and with the additional height they could then invest to keep some of the contributing building – it was not the intention for the whole area to be viewed as a redevelopment site, rather to allow some additional height to provide design flexibility to achieve some of the other objectives in the plan. You heard the developers talk about the other objectives that are being met, the mid-block pedestrian path and the lakefront path, however when it came down to the number of contributing buildings being demolished in this proposal and the recommendations in the Downtown Plan we just couldn’t conclude that it met this threshold.
Chris Schmidt asks a technical question.
Lauren Cnare asks Tim Parks (newer guy in the planning department – 5 years?) She asks about the initial recommendation and the fact that it changed and it hasn’t met the bar for approval. What are some things this project could do to earn a recommendation from staff.
He is less than thrilled about answering that question. He says to build on what Fruhling said about the bonus area. He says this is a difference of opinion between the development team and staff. He says some of them thought that some of the contributing buildings could be demolished but others would be preserved and in exchange for preserving some buildings, the carrot would be 2 additional stories to provide additional density to preserve contributing buildings and redevelopment sites with non-contributing buildings that are not in character with the district. He says that they could conceive of a project that would demolish one or two of the buildings – but this is not a blank check – but that would be more in line with what they had in mind. They could wrap N Henry St. or preserve one building but do something different with another building. That is how they were looking at projects in the bonus areas. They did hear from plan commissioners that were very involved with the Downtown Plan that they saw that bonus area differently. That they saw it as a targeted redevelopment area and we would respectfully disagree with that interpretation but it points out that there is a variety of interpretations for what was intended in those areas.
Fruhling adds that met a number of times over the years and talked about all kinds of iterations, maybe an L shaped building that wraps around the corner or two separate buildings but that just doesn’t work for them for their program.
Lisa Subeck asks about contributing buildings and ADA compliance and the loss of the coop driveway – basically the answer on the last issue is that the area is really messed up!
Steve King asks the Director of Planning and Community and Economic Development about his comments at Plan Commission last night about the Downtown Plan and all the other issues they are balancing and what that means in that context from the larger perspective.
So now . . . for something completely different . . . from a guy who supposed to be our main staff person on planning, who doesn’t seem to give a damn about planning . . .
Steve Cover says that he has been giving this a lot of thought in the last few days, they have been heavily involved in the project for so long and he would like to expand over and above the specific question because he thinks it is pretty important – he says he has just put these thoughts together in the last few days. Perhaps he should work on them a little while longer before saying them out loud in public, however, they really do show his true colors. He says the project has had a long path that has been arduous at times. There has been a lot of testimony and opinions, a lot of controversy and compassion and he has heard the project described as “no good” to “the building other than here would be spactacular” to “hey, this is a great project as it came out of the plan commission”. He wants to remind everyone there really is no bad guy in all of this. There are just a lot of different opinions and everyone is trying to do the right thing and sometimes we get caught up in trying to make the perfect project. And a planners, architects, landscape architects we have to look past the testimony and opinions and controversy and passion and try to picture what the building should look like, how it fits in the context and if it truly contributes to the community. He says contributes goes way beyond if it is just an old building or not. Does it contribute to the community and when he decided to take a fresh look at it and visit the site and he thought one of the pieces of correspondence that was presented was that you should stroll through the historic neighborhood and enjoy its special sense of place and character. He agrees with that statement, but when you go out there, its not special. If you look at the contributing buildings, and I mean contributing in a lot of different ways, they are not contributing and just because they are old they are not contributing. This area looks tired and in the staff report our recommendations are correct, but he thinks they are just technically correct, but being technically correct doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right thing to do. If we were to do everything technically correct we would create a city that is very rigid and very boring. That is not our goal in projects like this. In addressing the Downtown Plan, it is a good document, but it is not perfect, I think we all know that. It is a policy document, not law and we shouldn’t treat it as such, the project is not 100% compliant with the Downtown Plan and I think we recognize that but we have to recognize that there will be many more projects in the future that will not be 100% compliant and we have to keep in mind that the Downtown Plan is a guide, not law. Sometimes we will be challenged to look beyond the plan and determine what is best for the city. And I think this is what we have to do tonight on this project. From a design standpoint, this project has gone through a lot of design considerations and the last round of changes the architect truly made significant changes for the better and that is what was stated by the Plan Commission last night. These were not just minor changes reflected in a picture. Having worked in a architects office he says you can tell the differences in changes that are just to make it look good and real substantial changes and he thinks what the architect did was to make substantial changes that were well thought out. Height in this project has always been an issue, til now and last night Mr. Tisch (staff at Madison Historic Trust) said height is no longer an issues. The key issues as spelled out in the staff report is bulk and mass. We can look at maps, overhead and silhouetted buildings and we can see that the bulk and mass is larger than anything around it, that is obvious, for mass, but how many of us will be judging a project from an air plane or from overhead, who really cares what the mass of a building is if you are in an airplane. What is important is what the project looks like from the street where we will be actually viewing the building. Unlike some of the previous submittals they proposed to break down the project by adding 4 structures at the base, they are consistent with scale and spacing in the neighborhood, the upper floors step back so the upper level of the building will be virtually unnoticeable from every street surrounding the project and the different facades and architectural treatments, if done poorly can look tacky and disney-like but the architect pulled it off in a positive way. He thinks there are some minor changes that can be handled at the staff level that are recommendations from the Plan Commission but what the architect has done with the exterior architecture is really a great job. The courtyard entry has been moved to Henry St. and that is a positive change, the vehicular entrance has been relocated to Iota Court, that is a positive change, and he thinks some of the other factors to keep in the back of their minds. Will this project result in losing National Register Status, absolutely not. The project changes the number of contributing buildings from 86 to 83 and non-contributing buildings from 28 to 29, so literally 3/4 of the buildings will still be left in the area and will still be contributing. There is a question about if this will set a precedent. Absolutely not, future projects will be reviewed on their merit and good projects will be approved and bad projects will not be approved. As planners and architects and elected officials, we have to look beyond the testimony, the things presented tonight and look at the project, picture what the project will look like and how it fits in the context of the community. (So yeah, members of the community, we don’t give a shit what you have to say, its irrelevant. Council, look beyond that and just use your own judgement, regardless of years of planning and testimony. We know better.) After taking a fresh look at this project and the well thought revisions by the architect, personally I think this project works, it works on this site and the site is not longer going to look tired and worn out, it creates a sense of place that doesn’t exist there right now and the building will contribute to the community in the truest sense of those words. So those are just my thoughts. And with that, he didn’t just throw the staff and community that have been working on the Downtown Plan for years under the bus, but he backed up and ran them over again for good measure.
Bridget Maniaici asks about the different interpretations of the plans and what the plan commission did.
Fruhling says that until last night he thought that what the plan said was very clear (again, he worked on it for four years) but the Plan Commission obviously thought differently, the Downtown Plan is a document that is not staff’s document but it is the city’s document that is adopted by the plan commission and the city council. So, at the end of the day, the plan commission and common council are the ones that make the decision.
Maniaici asks if the comments of plan commissioners changes his ideas about the plan for tonight or moving forward.
Fruhling says it doesn’t change his opinion for tonight, like he said, it is up to the plan commission and common council to interpret the document. Going forward, if the recommendations are not clear, they should be clarified so that staff, when they meet with the developers and the policy makers are able to give clear direction to the applicants, the neighborhood and all the stakeholders in the application process. (who don’t matter according to Cover) The number one reason we did the Downtown Plan and the first “be it resolved” clause in the resolution was that it was to be used as a framework to guide decisions on development and investment and if there is something that is not clear to everybody that should be revisited and clarified.
Maniaci asks if they need a directive from Plan Commission to evolve on this interpretation – an ordinance or resolution change moving forward.
Fruhling says that would be helpful.
Schmidt asks a technical question about Floor Area Ratio – Parks says that the project to be looked at under the old zoning code with the old Downtown Design Guidelines.
Marsha Rummel talks about the National District, but she is more concerned about the local district. She asks if the proposal goes forward how do we judge the noncontributing building when creating a local district.
Fruhling says that they should consider establishing a local district, it doesn’t say to do it. If it is in a national district and that is the character we want to see, another tool available to ensure that would be to create a local district. There is a lot of work that needs to happen to do that – they need an inventory of all the buildings, and really need to take a close look at what is is about them that makes them historic and then you can talk about boundaries.
Rummel says that when they tried to expand the Third Lake Ridge District a few years ago they ran into issues that certain buildings were not part of it – from the State or our local preservation planner – that there wasn’t a contiguousness and will that be a factor in creating a future district.
Fruhling says that they can’t answer that until they do an inventory.
Rummel says that she is learning that nothing in this plan has any teeth because she thought they went forward thinking they were doing this stuff even if it said “consider” doing it. Her second question is about the bonus story. She refers to the Downtown Plan (if you can find one) and refers to specific criteria. She says one of the key elements for the bonus area has not been met.
Fruhling talked to her during the break and didn’t understand, he says what she is reading from is an earlier draft of the plan.
Rummel says that they should publish more and hand them out to the preservation planner. She points out we are keeping the Cliff dwellers but losing three contributing buildings, can you talk about how that was decided with the developers?
Fruhling says that they met with the developers several times over the years and did suggest different approaches like having smaller buildings, an L shaped building to preserve one contributing building and those approaches didn’t work with their program so that is not what they went with.
Rhodes-Conway asks staff how many years it took us to develop the Downtown Plan and how much it cost us in terms of staff time.
Fruhling says four years, and the only cost was staff time and they did not add that up.
Rhodes-Conway says to take a wild guess.
Fruhling says he can’t.
Number of hours?
Rhodes-Conway says she is serious because we spent a ton of money and she would like a ballpark.
She asks if it is 10′s of thousands?
He says yes
Less than 100s of thousands
He makes a funny face and shakes his head and says he doesn’t know.
Mayor says bigger than a bread basket and smaller than Texas.
Ellingson asks why it didn’t go back to Urban Design.
Fruhling says that the Plan Commission didn’t refer it back, the developer asked for this timeline. The building is the same concept as before, it is improved but it did not get referred back.
They close the public hearing. Make a motion to accept the recommendations of Plan Commission.
Hold on to your hats.
Alder Rhodes-Conway says she doesn’t have anything to say about the project. And she will keep it brief, but she asked how much time it took and how much they spent on the Downtown Plan becasue she is really deeply disturbed and very disappointed to hear that the head of planning and community and economic development dismiss a plan that took us 4 years and at least multiple 10s of thousands of dollars to produce. I thought at the time they said it would cost a million dollars, maybe half a million? Frankly Mr. Cover, I am shocked. I’m appalled. I’m horrified. Excuse my language folks, but what the hell do we put all this time and money for in, if we are not going to actually respect and use our plans. I’m sorry, I’ve got better things to do. Why should I go looking at redoing the Emerson East-Eken Park plan which will take us at least a year and possibly $10K to produce, why should my neighborhoods go through that if the minute after it is adopted, someone who is high up in the city and should be well respected, is going to say its really more just like guidelines. That’s horrifying, that is insulting to people who spent hours in community meetings, who poured through the plan and made comments on it, its insulting to the staff who spent years of their lives working on it, and its insulting to this body that adopted it with the intention that it would guide future development and city investment going forward. I understand when plans are 10 or 15 or 20 years old that you have to take them with a grain of salt because it has been a long time since the neighborhood talked about them, but when a plan has just. been. adopted. It is absolutely horrifying to hear our staff say that we don’t have to pay attention to it. Now you all can decide whether you think the project fits the recommendations of the plan or not, she has her own opinion of that and will not attempt to change yours, but please respect the plan, the process, the community input that went into it and take it seriously. The question is not does the plan apply, the question is does the project fit the plan.
‘Nuff said. I have nothing further to add. Well done.
Anita Weier says she will vote for it because years ago when a family member lived there, it smelled.
King says he heard something different from Cover. He talks about predictability and the need for it, but we don’t need a process with 60 meetings to get to where we are and then ask why it didn’t go back to more committee. Our process is completely out of whack . . . repeat devleopment community talking points about why the City is evil . . . he talks about art vs technical requirements. They were elected to make these decisions . . . yadda . . yadda . . yadda . . .
Mark Clear speaks, also talks about the smelly buildings. He says that at some point we have to tear buildings down.
I missed a bunch here.
Mayor speaks – he says that we need to evaluate how we are doing and we need to resolve confusion. He says they need to work on the issue of contributing buildings. He also talks about the marketability of the units he says that within a 3 – 5 year period of time the pricing gets in line with the market. Obviously that is not true with the highest luxury apartments, but otherwise there isn’t much difference. He says when you replace efficiencies with bigger units you get more space for the price.
Resnick and Maniaci speak about why they support the project.
Rummel says there is more than one way to do this project that we could all approve of. She says this is not just what we want to see, but we have standards. She didn’t believe that they met the demolition standards because it does not meet our adopted plan. Whether or not an ordinance or a recommendation, to hear that we can just decide if we want to apply our plans, she is really demoralized. She does spend a lot of time on plans, sometimes we don’t always get there 100%, but to say they are just ideas and there is nothing more than that is a problem because there are really strong recommendations for this area that we need to consider. Do what you think it right, in the preservation development continuum she thinks they are making a mistake and she thinks they could do better if they referred it back to Urban Design, to save a contributing building. It only took them two weeks to get better, it is in their capacity to improve it more. If this fails, she hopes they will consider that.
Rhodes-Conway says that the council and Mayor heard her passion but not her point. Her point is we need to respect our plans not undermine them, if the plan needs adjustments, lets revisit them, lets adjust it but lets respect it. Lets not disrespect plans that don’t meet them. Reasonable people can disagree about if this meets the plan or not, you all can make your own decision, she has made hers, she will not try to influence yours, but you should use the plan as part of the standard to make that decision. Third point, either we and our staff should respect our plans or we, and out staff, should not spend hours and hours and hours of time and thousands of 10s of thousands of dollars doing said plans. It does not make sense to invest that time and money and have our highest level staff turn around and undermine our plans. That is her point. She is glad to hear there will be a process to update a plan, because that signals respect for the plan. If we didn’t respect the plan we would continue to ignore it. Please use the plan to make your decision tonight, not ignore it.
Ellingson is disappointed that it did not get referred back to Urban Design. She says the Urban Design process is painful but always results in a better project or building, we are doing this for expediency and it is disappointing it didn’t go through that process.
Schmidt talks about plans he has been involved in, he says that sometimes the plans might not get us what we want but it is close enough. That is what happened here. (He said more . . . but I don’t have time.) He says no one even thought to send it back to Urban Design, blame Plan Commission for that.
There was a petition filed by neighbors and they need 14 votes to pass. It gets 14 votes, with 3 votes against. Rummel, Rhodes-Conway and Bidar-Sielaff against. Verveer and Clausius are absent.
So, lets just ax the planning budget, since the council seems to agree with the Director of Planning and Community and Economic Development that plans are irrelevant – in fact, I think staff opinion is also irrelevant since the council was elected to make these important decisions. That will save us a whole bunch of money that can be spent on community services where it is greatly needed and would be appreciated and well spent.
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