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722 Willy Street rendering

Architectural rendering of the proposed development “722 Williamson."

Could the proposed $46 million commercial and residential complex at 722 Williamson St. be an 800-pound gorilla looming over one of Madison’s most storied thoroughfares? Or is it one of the best proposals in years for a neighborhood long in the sights of developers?

Maybe both, argues John Martens, who owns the building where Ground Zero Coffee and El Dorado Grill are located, which is adjacent to the development site.

“This configuration truly engages the street and neighborhood in many ways, and it shows a quality of refinement of design that we seldom see in Madison. True, it is an 800-pound gorilla... but it will be a far better neighbor than the cage full of wild orangutans that might show up next,” Martens said in message reported in the Willy Street Blog. Part of his parking lot would be conveyed to the developers to allow a bike path through the site connecting Williamson Street to the nearby Capital City Trail path.

The proposed complex would include 220 apartments, 5,600 square feet of commercial space, 386 parking stalls and a co-working space. The three-tiered design places retail and office space along Williamson Street, then steps up in height to seven, then 10 stories deeper into the property.

Baldwin Development Group principal Jim Bower told the blog that the development would marry historic and modern elements.

“The global sense of the project is to create a final piece to the 700 block that really captures the historic sensibility of the block, but also building a modern building,” Bower said. “The desire is to fit in to the fabric and the context of the streetscape along Williamson and certainly stepping the building back towards the bike path and the Capitol East District.”

Some residents of the area argue the development would not fit in with the neighborhood, as revealed in a lively give-and-take on the Marquette Neighborhood Association email network.

Buildings 10 stories tall should be on East Washington Avenue, not Williamson Street, wrote one resident.

"This will snarl traffic on Williamson Street and tower over our neighborhood,” wrote another. The height of the building would exceed the limit — generally five stories for this block — set in BUILD design and preservation guidelines developed for Williamson Street and adopted by the City Council.

"What is so special about this building?" asks a neighborhood resident.

Others favor the proposal. Ten stories on Williamson Street is better than sprawl, argues another resident. “Yes, this project will bring more people, which does mean more pedestrian, bicycle and motor vehicle traffic. But it is important to remember that our city is growing regardless of this project. Do we want density in the central city or do we want to push it to current green spaces at the fringes?” he writes.

The neighborhood needs more residents as customers of the services that make the area a convenient place to live, wrote a small business owner.

Lindsey Lee, owner of Ground Zero and chairman of the Marquette Neighborhood Association’s Preservation and Design Committee, favors the project. “I believe that we as a community and as a city have committed ourselves to building a more dense urban area. I do not believe that means that every area of the city should be eyed for high intensity development. Instead, this increase in density should be strategically placed. This site along the rail corridor seems to me to be perfect to do this kind of density building,” he emailed to community members.

The neighborhood association put its well-oiled gears into play, and formed a “working group” to work through concerns with the developer.

Ald. Marsha Rummel says that she needs to be convinced that the BUILD height limits should be exceeded. “They say it’s the best and only way to develop the site. I’d like to see other alternatives.”

Also a concern is the complex's relationship to the bike trail, which would run along what would become a parking structure, she said.

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