A steering committee has been formed to provide community feedback on an apartment building proposed for 414 East Washington Ave., a downtown property that currently houses a shuttered dry cleaner and some residential buildings.
The committee will include about 18 residents from the area, near the east side Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood. The intent is to organize meetings with residents and the development team and ultimately write a letter to the city’s Plan Commission in support of or opposition to the project.
This is the second time a steering committee has been formed to assess a proposal for 414 East Washington.
The first steering committee, headed by local business owner Bob Klebba, wrote a letter to the Urban Design Commission opposing the project, arguing a smaller building would fit better in that part of the city, where parts of downtown, the emerging Capital East district and Tenney-Lapham come together. The steering committee expressed concerns about the precedent that would be set by allowing such a large development there, and that “the residential homes in the James Madison Park neighborhood are not dominoes waiting to fall to further development.”
The work of that steering committee bore fruit for area residents when the Plan Commission denied the proposal on July 13, saying that the project “did not meet the standards for approval” for conditional use. The body also denied the developer’s request for a demolition permit.
The work of another steering committee headed by Klebba fought against a Langdon Street apartment building this year, eventually succeeding in the denial of permits. That project, the Hub II, is considering its next steps.
Eli Judge, president of Capitol Neighborhoods, Inc., said the importance of using steering committees to vet a development project is dependent on the nature of the proposal and the level of resident participation.
“Some steering committees can have a significant impact on the ultimate fate of a project, others can have a marginal one,” Judge said. “In the end, any steering committee’s true power comes from influence it can wield with the various city committees and our downtown alders.”
Judge said committees are essential in helping keep neighborhoods better informed about what is going on, not only in terms of real estate development, but the neighborhoods in general.
“Even if steering committees served only that informational purpose, I would say they were worth the time and effort to organize,” Judge said.
Often residents are unaware of zoning requirements or what is even allowable in terms of building size in their area. This can lead to some shock when new construction begins and large buildings start to take shape, seemingly without much notice to neighbors.
“When steering committees work best, they are a collaborative exchange between the developer and the neighborhood,” Klebba said. “Oftentimes, the developer will meet with interested people in a neighborhood before even an application has been submitted. These tend to be the most productive because the neighborhood can claim a sense of ownership and buy-in through the process.”
For example, residents may live in an area that includes a lot of single family homes that are two stories and perhaps small commercial buildings that are three or four stories, like many of the buildings in Tenney-Lapham. Plans to build a 10-story building in that area could surprise neighbors.
Klebba said developers who engage the community early in the process, or even before the process begins, have a greater shot at gaining support than if they wait until later later, after a presentation to city committees.
“If a steering committee can come to a consensus, members can help the developer through the UDC and Plan meetings by submitting a positive report and by testifying on the developer’s behalf,” Klebba said. “When steering committees are involved later in the process or minimally, there might not be enough time for committee members to overcome their initial negative reaction.”
More review in campus area
That was the case with the Hub II, an apartment building targeting student renters. The size and scale of the building, along with traffic issues it might have created, caused some nearby residents to oppose it.
The developer, Core Spaces, tried to offset the negative reaction of the steering committee by engaging the neighboring student population. A group of students called the Campus Neighborhood Association formed in opposition to the development, filling a vacuum of no formal neighborhood organization.
CNA now plans to form its own steering committee to review a proposed development at 619 and 621 N. Lake St. The proposal calls for the demolition of two three-story houses and the construction of an 8-story apartment building.
The new building would include 2 apartments on the second floor and a first-floor space for Alpha Chi Sigma, a co-ed professional chemistry fraternity with more than 50 members. The remaining floors would each have three apartments, adding up to 20 total apartments for the building — 12 three-bedroom units, 7 five-bedrooms, and one ten-bedroom unit.
The fraternity has owned the 619 building since the 1950s and the 621 building since the 1920s. Members are concerned the existing structures have become too old for continued use and maintenance is financially burdensome.
Patrick Properties, a development group that will own multiple units in the planned building as well as manage the property, has been in communication with Ald. Max Prestigiacamo, who represents the area, in an effort to garner community support.
Preservation & Development committees
Not all neighborhoods go the steering committee route in reviewing development proposals.
The near east side’s Marquette Neighborhood Association, one of Madison’s most active and influential, uses a standing Preservation & Development committee with regular meetings to go over proposals, meet with development teams and vote on whether to support or oppose projects before they’re taken up by the neighborhood board.
“I would say that we have a standing committee because interest in the district is so high,” said Jack Kear, who chairs the MNA P&D committee. “Arranging steering committees for every proposed project that comes up would require more time than coordinating the standing committee.”
Kear said having the standing committee increases the response time when an alder calls for a public meeting while cutting down on the overall amount of time reviewing projects takes out of volunteer committee members’ lives.
“If we needed to do that for every proposal it could be a job that goes beyond volunteer hours,” Kear said. “Prior to the pandemic, the standing committee might hear 3-5 proposals per month ranging from development projects to the expansion or redesign of existing spaces to request for alcohol permits. There’s just a lot going on.”
But discussing projects with the same group of people over time can have its drawbacks.
Over the summer, Kear caught some flack for personally backing a proposal that had divided his committee.
That proposal, for 817 Williamson St., called for the demolition of a one-story commercial building and parking lot and construction of a three-story, 24-unit apartment building. The property is in the Third Lake Ridge historic district and is a prominent address on the near east side.
Initial disagreement about the appropriateness of the project led a small group of P&D members to write personal letters to the Landmarks and Plan commissions opposing one another. Kear wrote a letter of his own that, in addition to stating support for the project, included sharp words for those who opposed it.
“I have come to see that the NIMBYism of the Marquette homeowner is an unfortunate tag to all residents of this district,” Kear wrote. “They want to preserve ‘historic quality’ and one of those district qualities is long-term homogenized whiteness.”
Many of Kear’s neighbors opposed the size, structure and facade of the proposed building in its first iteration (the developer has since submitted a revised proposal that has greater support). Kear said that now that the developer, Brandon Cook, has submitted a revised plan, things are moving forward in a more community-based way.
“Yes, the previous incarnation of this project did stir up great concern from neighbors, but this new version seemed to be very well-received,” Kear said.
Whether the proposals for 414 East Washington and 817 Williamson are approved or not, each has in its own way been heavily influenced by the level of participation of nearby residents. And that’s what Klebba said is the whole point.
“I strongly recommend to anyone interested in where they live to be involved in a steering committee,” Klebba said. “The opportunity to help shape what gets developed is large, and learning how the development process in Madison works is important to know.”