The city’s Plan Commission has approved a plan to increase housing density and allow more flexibility around zoning requirements along the city’s bus lines.
In practice, the proposal would allow a house zoned as a single-family home to be converted into a duplex, or allow an apartment building to build one level higher. This, sponsors of the ordinance say, would allow for denser housing to be built along Madison’s new and improved transit lines.
It’s part of a plan to make Madison a more pedestrian-friendly city as Bus Rapid Transit is set to begin next summer. Under the proposed overlay district, property owners would be allowed to build one zoning-level higher than usual.
Originally, historic districts, or areas deemed historically significant, were left out of the proposed plan. But an amendment to add them in was recommended by the city’s Transportation Planning and Policy Board last week, and now by the Plan Commission last night. If passed, the overlay district would now apply to, among others, the University Heights and Third Lake Ridge neighborhoods.
Alder Patrick Heck of District 2, who is one of the sponsors of the amendment, says that from the outside, people in historic neighborhoods won’t notice much difference.
“So from the exterior it would look the same, the Landmarks Commission has no jurisdiction over the uses of a historic resource or what the interior is,” Heck says. “It’s really creating more opportunities for housing.”
But the change brought vocal opposition from Madison residents at last night’s Plan Commission Meeting.
Scores of residents voiced their concern that the change is moving too fast, and without enough time for public comment.
Alder Bill Tishler of District 11, who spoke at last night’s meeting, says that he’s concerned that the city is going back on what residents have already been told.
“I held a town hall meeting a while back with the mayor, who was asked a direct question, ‘will historic districts be included in the overlay zoning?’ and the answer was no,” Tishler says. “People sort of thought okay, this is a done deal, there will be changes throughout BRT but historic districts won’t be included. This is sort of a quick change for people.”
Alder Heck says that, while this specific amendment is new to the plan, the idea to add the overlays to historic districts has been discussed by the Plan Commission for months.
Madison resident Will Ochowicz says that, while protecting our historic districts is important, addressing Madison’s growing housing crisis is more important. He points to another recent change to increase flexible housing by cutting red tape for accessible housing units, regularly called backyard cottages.
“The city just needs more housing, and this is a gentle way to introduce more housing across the city,” Ochowicz says. “A duplex is the second gentlest change you can make besides an ADU, and the city has already made a change to make ADUs a permitted use, and we haven’t seen the sky fall. This is just the next step up, and there’s no reason we should be excluding historic districts.”
Members of the public also questioned how the proposal would impact federal funding for bus rapid transit. When BRT was approved, it was done with an Environmental Impact Statement. That report took into account the possibility of the overlay districts in most of Madison, but not in historic districts.
Tishler says that this last-minute change could cause the federal government to withdraw their support.
“We put in the original request for funding, $140 million in one time federal funds to support the BRT,” Tishler says. “The historic districts were not included, in chapter 106, the environmental impact, so staff recommended not putting this in because it could cause concerns.”
But Tom Lynch with the city’s Transportation Department says that Madison should be in the clear.
“Right now, our environmental document is beyond the statute of limitations, so it cannot be legally challenged,” Lynch says. “Consulting parties in the historic districts can ask authorities in the federal transit administration to reopen the section 106 process to consider this new effect, (but) people that I have talked to in the federal transit administration have indicated that they are not inclined to reopen the section 106 process because the effect of TOD was discussed in our environmental document.”
The plan will go before the full common council on January 13.
Photo courtesy: City of Madison Plan Commission