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Developer proposes 16-story 'workforce housing' tower near Dane County Courthouse

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Taking a novel approach to create lower-cost housing Downtown, a developer is proposing a 16-story tower that seeks to deliver affordability through small apartments and high density on a narrow lot with views of Lake Monona on West Wilson Street.

Developer Randy Alexander, who has done many projects in the city and elsewhere, wants to demolish a four-story building with 25 apartments for the 16-story tower reaching to the Capitol view height limit with 335 units on the nearly half-acre site at 139 W. Wilson St. The site is next to a 12-story office building that houses Paisan’s restaurant, at 131 W. Wilson St., and across the street from the Dane County Courthouse.

The intent of Alexander’s project is to create “affordable workforce housing” for people in the hospitality industry and others who want to live Downtown, a letter of intent from 139 West Wilson LLC and SEA Design to the city says. The affordability is achieved through density and a design that maximizes efficiency while not sacrificing function, it says.

“We believe that there is a strong need to not only provide this type of housing but to create a meaningful sense of place,” the application says.

The redevelopment proposal includes three on-site vehicles as part of an on-demand use program and will provide parking stalls to those who want them in the nearby Dane County garage, 113 S. Henry St.

The project would also include a 3,620-square-foot open space garden, car charging stations, on-site laundry, fitness center, mail and secure package room and, on the 16th floor, a community lounge, mini-kitchen and meeting rooms. The site is zoned for urban mixed use and does not require off-street parking, the application says.

The existing Shorecrest Apartments, which has 25 units and 1,860 square feet of office space, was built in 1962 and assessed at $3.49 million for 2021.

The development team was not available for comment. It is scheduled to make an informational presentation to the city’s Urban Design Commission on March 9.

“This is a rather unique proposal, and out-of-the-box proposal,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who represents the site. “What’s intriguing is if the concept for workforce housing can truly deliver lower-cost units. I absolutely welcome the proposal from the perspective that we desperately need lower-cost housing Downtown.”

Verveer said it’s “unheard of” to have such small units not for student housing in such a prized central location with lake views. “I’m anxious to see how the details come together for the proposal,” he said.

The proposal comes as four influential neighborhood associations on the Isthmus are pushing to have developers include low-cost units in their projects whenever they seek city approvals.

Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. and the Campus Area, Marquette and Tenney-Lapham neighborhood associations have unanimously adopted a joint resolution that defines “affordable” housing as units for those making up to 30% of the Dane County-area median income, seeks 15% of such units in all new projects and asks developers to explore financial assistance to help create the units before seeking approvals.

The resolution carries no legal authority, but active neighborhood associations, especially those that create special steering committees for development proposals, can make requests and influence the city review process and City Council.

Neighbors are intrigued by Alexander’s proposal but need more information, said Jonathan Cooper, chair of the Bassett District of CNI.

Concerns about lack of parking for both tenants and visitors as well as the handling of move-ins and move-outs, deliveries, and trash and recycling collection in such a limited space were expressed at a neighborhood meeting attended by Alexander last week, he said.

“There was a strong desire by the neighborhood to accommodate off-street deliveries, loading and unloading,” Verveer said.

While micro-units ranging in size from 275 square feet to just under 400 square feet might be relatively affordable, at one-third to one-half the size of the units in the current building, they won’t exactly be replacing those 25 one-bedroom units, all of which are around 800 square feet and rent for $800 to $900 a month, Cooper said, adding that more information is needed.

“We will be having many more neighborhood meetings to discuss this proposal,” Verveer said.

On Jan. 14, the 12-story office building that houses Paisan’s at 131 W. Wilson St. was cleared to reopen again after the city’s building inspection agency ordered it closed in December for a second time because the property owner was not keeping up with required inspections of a degrading underground garage.

In a letter to the property owner, the city’s Building Inspection Division said the common spaces of the structure were “in a safe stable condition for public use” after the second closure.

Verveer said he has seen interest in the redevelopment of that site.

Dean Mosiman's memorable stories from 2021

As the community emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, it's been amazing to witness the creativity, dedication to causes and resilience that give hope and promise. I chose stories that reflect that dynamic, some involving long-held dreams, including pieces about a vision for the next Downtown in the wake of the pandemic and protests against racism, and the Bayview Foundation's plans for redevelopment of low-income housing into what will be one of the coolest neighborhoods in Madison. A proposal for an 18-story housing tower that would have razed the historic Wonder Bar with its gangster lore on the South Side revived a movement to save the building with the final chapters of the saga yet to be written. After fits and starts, the Wisconsin Historical Society chose a site for a long-sought, $120 million museum at the top of State Street. And I was able to document the move of a homeless man from the once sprawling homeless encampment at Reindahl Park near East Towne to the city's first tiny shelter encampment in an industrial area on the Southeast Side.

There's been so much more -- the plight of event venues amid the pandemic, the Urban League of Greater Madison's proposed Black Business Hub and the unveiling of plans for the Center for Black Excellence and Culture, both on the South Side, new investments and initiatives to address gun violence, the coming of bus rapid transit and a transit network redesign.

It will be something to watch so many of these ventures come to fruition in coming years.

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