A city commission tasked with managing Madison’s historic buildings, landmarks, and neighborhoods is holding up a plan to build new apartments on Willy Street.
That, in itself, is not entirely unusual. What is unusual is that the proposal has been rejected despite broad support from the neighborhood.
Last Monday, the city’s Landmarks Commission voted to reject a developer’s plan to merge two land parcels to build the apartments.
The snag? One parcel of land, at 826 Williamson Street, sits in a historic district. The other parcel of land, at 302 South Paterson Street, does not. Both are owned by Madison development company Donde LLC.
And if the city were to combine the parcels, they would then also have to expand the historic district to contain the new Paterson Street plot. That’s not something the Landmarks Commission was willing to do – and the main reason the commission rejected the plan.
That decision came despite large community support for a merger. Both the Marquette Neighborhood Association and District 6 Alder Brian Benford, who represents the area, both registered in support of the combination.
Marlisa Kopenski Condon is the chair of the Preservation and Development Committee of the Marquette Neighborhood Association. She says that she is disappointed in the Landmarks Commission’s decision.
“We are well aware of the fair share of density that our neighborhood needs to carry in order for Madison to meet our goals. We have every confidence that the Warren family, who have been very collaborative with the neighborhood for over 50 years that they’ve been doing business (in the neighborhood), is approaching this development thoughtfully and respectfully with regard to various city documents that guide developments on the isthmus,” Condon says.
Earlier this year, a similar proposal from Donde to merge two properties, this time at 826 Willy Street, was approved by the Landmarks Commission. But in that instance, both plots were small, and within a historic district.
Heather Bailey is the Preservation Planner with the city of Madison. She says that the plot combination was denied last week because that would have expanded the historic district to include the Paterson plots, which didn’t fit with the neighborhood.
“It made sense to expand a historic district to include additional historic resources, but expanding the boundaries of a historic district to accommodate new construction isn’t really what a historic district is about” Bailey says.
This decision does not block Donde from building on the two properties, Bailey says. Instead, it just means that they cannot build just one big building on the properties.
“If they move forward with a redevelopment proposal for that property that is outside the historic district, they can build a much larger building than what would meet the standards for the historic district. So I think there are some pluses and minuses for the developers to look to going forward,” Bailey says.
But, Donde would not be able to build something else in their proposal: an underground parking garage. That’s not possible, they say, without merging the two plots.
Kris Warren is one of the owners of Donde LLC.
“It limits the configuration of what you can do, as far as where the building goes, where the driveway goes, where the access is to get to the underground parking. With one building, you get rid of half of those. You still have four on one building, but it gives you a lot more versatility in laying out the building,” Warren says.
Bill Connors is executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison, a coalition of real estate developers in Madison. He says this is just an example of unnecessarily red tape for developers – and could put the entire project in jeopardy.
“It makes it so you can’t do a project at a large enough scale that it works economically. What it does is say ‘if they’re small parcels, you need to leave them small parcels and figure out how to do a redevelopment project on each little parcel,’ which does not frequently work economically,” Conners says.
Kris Warren, of Donde, says that the project will live to see another day. He says he may appeal the ruling to the Common Council, or may opt to build two smaller developments.
Warren says that there is no design layout for the development as of yet, as they are waiting for a final decision to be made on what the plot will look like.
If all this seems complicated, remember that this is a more streamlined process for building within a historic district. Earlier this year, the Common Council approved a plan to standardize and simplify that standards for building in all historic districts.
The purpose of this measure, Heather Bailey told the Wisconsin State Journal in March, was to make these standards clear for all users.
Photo courtesy: City of Madison Landmarks Commission