Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Up or Out

by Tom Bozzo

Meanwhile in my liberal enclave, the hot topic for tonight's city council meeting will be infill development.

The property in question this time is Midvale Plaza, a 3-acre-ish parcel that currently features a vacant one-story professional building (and its unused asphalt parking lot) and a small, atomic-age suburbia shopping strip housing, notably, a heavily-used (and much in need of a new home) branch of the Madison Public Library.

The site had been identified as ripe for higher-density redevelopment in the city's comprehensive plan. The development proposal before the council would, in two phases, add about 125 condos in four-story buildings, a new home for the library — in phase 1, replacing the currently vacant building — and additional retail in the ground floor of phase 2, which would replace the existing retail strip. The proposal has been strongly opposed by residents of the modest atomic-age ranch houses that currently have views of the backside of the strip center, and the neighborhood mustered enough additional opposition (*) to require a 3/4 council supermajority to advance the plan — which previously sailed through the Urban Design and Plan Commissions. The neighborhood doesn't oppose the redevelopment per se, but rather seeks some significant design revisions.

Some of the grounds for the opposition, such as added traffic to residential side streets, hold some water. Others, such as claims that the development does not adequately preserve the neighborhood's fifties suburbia category, are in the eyes of the beholder. Still more, concerning the height and density of the project, are not very serious. (The Midvale proposal has a lower average density than the Monroe Commons development in our neighborhood despite including some surface parking; the setback fourth floor reduces the overall bulk of the buildings, leading the developer to respond with a 'watch what you wish for' that the neighbors would do well to heed.)

There are a couple interesting things about the battle. One is that, despite being frequently and often unfairly tarred by business interests as anti-business (as in this not overly balanced WSJ article), votes against the development from the council's liberal wing are far from assured. Ald. Brenda Konkel was blunt on her blog:
I've gotten several emails trying to appeal to me "as a member of Progressive Dane" or "someone who cares about Inclusionary Zoning". I've been attacked for not sticking up for a "middle class" neighborhood. Bottom line is this folks . . . we grow up or we grow out. I believe this is what we asked for in our Comprehensive Planning efforts.
Indeed, as Madison's old sprawl is heavily built-up, the main development alternative is to push the city's far southwest fringes, which only looks cheap in private land acquisition cost terms. Madison sprawl may never be like Northern Virginia exurbia, but the city's moderate density makes promoting more sprawl (especially as other economic and environmental factors militate otherwise) totally illogical. My two cents is that Mayor Dave and the left-leaning element of the council deserve a lot of credit for trying to put some teeth into the idea that Madison should be a city and not a confederation of suburbs.

Obviously, the 'neighborhood character' argument is opposed by a fair amount of popular culture describing the absence of character of 50s car-oriented suburbia. What's more interesting is that the pocket of 50s suburbia that's supplying the core opposition is a case study in path-dependence. When the neighborhood was built, Midvale Blvd. basically marked the western edge of Madison's old suburbia. Fifty years of rampaging and often poorly-thought-out development have made it, more in keeping with its name, just a north-south route in the near-middle west side.

As such, if the neighborhood were swept away for some reason, there's no way market forces would see it rebuilt as the modern equivalent of the 50s ranches. This is in contrast to, say, Dudgeon-Monroe, which as an example of the prewar suburban model for the new urbanism would end up looking pretty much like it does, only with a lot more two-car garages.

Anyway, the council should not break its streak of declining to overturn the Plan Commission. We'll see how it went tomorrow morning.

Note: Kristian Knutsen is live-blogging the council meeting at the Isthmus Daily Page here.


(*) We suspect that many of the opposing neighbors really don't feel very intensely about the project. For our part, we're a block away from another probable infill site, and unless someone were to throw away the neighborhood plan and erect a skyscraper on the site, I'd be hard-pressed to get pissed despite some sadness over possibly losing what's been an amazingly convenient nursery school location before Julia is old enough for kindergarten.
I live two blocks from Midvale Plaza, and oppose the size of the proposed development. For me, traffic is the only issue. Placing 140+ new residences in a spot that now has none is a bit much.

The neighborhood assn's goal of 90 is more than I'd like, but it is obvious (and correct) the site really does need to be developed. But why does it have to be so damned dense?

(Prediction: - once this development is done, they'll raze the apt building just north of it and build a second big hulk. I've seen this before, when I lived in Chicago.)
Anon, as I suggested in the post, I'm most sympathetic to the traffic issue. However, you could get much worse traffic from certain types of ostensibly less-dense development -- say, expanding the retail with higher-traffic shops and restaurants than the current mix.

It also could be argued that given the existence of a demand for that many housing units in the area (which is a little hard for me to see, given how the market has taken its time swallowing the Hilldale-area units, but which Krupp presumably anticipates materializing), greater density minimizes the disruption to the surrounding neighborhoods.

The main thing w/ the density, though, is that there are only so many candidate infill sites of that size in the near-west; I'd assume that the proximity to the research park, the relatively straight shot to the west transfer point, and easy access to various other auto and human-powered transport routes will be selling points.
Actually, many cities around the country are beginning to take steps to preserve the historic character of the first post WW2 suburbs.

This is from the City Comprehensive Plan of Staunton VA:
Take steps to preserve the architectural character of older neighborhoods that may not be included under the "historical" category, but are equally important to the look and feel of the city, especially pre- and post-WWII neighborhoods.

Our own Madison Trust for Historic Preservation recently co-hosted a tour of the Hill Farms Neighborhood, which is adjacent to Midvale Heights. It featured
"Modern Homes of Post-War Years.
Eight Houses and five gardens in the Hill Farms neighborhood will be open for a special tour to mark 50 years since residents first moved into the “new” neighborhood on Madison’s west side...The houses highlight a variety of modern architectural styles popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s when neighborhood construction was in full swing. The gardens continue to add to the pleasure of the neighborhood.

“This is the first tour highlighting Hill Farms and we invite the city to see why this is still one of the best areas in Madison,” said Kelly Thompson-Frater, an architect and neighborhood association President.

Interest in post-war houses has been building in recent years according to Daina Penkiunas, an architectural historian who lives in the neighborhood. “The houses have been chosen both for their style and also to represent different modes of living during the beginning of the nationally acclaimed master planned neighborhood.”

Also, Westmorland neighborhood contains a number of Lustron homes, which are historically interesting and important to many people.

Also,Frank Lloyd Wright built the First Jacobs House in Westmorland. Designed and constructed in 1936-1937, the Jacobs House is located in Westmorland, on the edge of what was at the time the western border of Madison, Wisconsin. The First Jacobs is the purest and most famous application of Wright's Usonian concepts, ranked by the AIA as one of the twenty most important residential designs of the twentieth century.

It is actually thought of as the first ranch home.

The song, "Ticky Tacky" was written about Levitown in the 1950s when suburbs were new and different... 50 years later, they are seen differently by many. This was where we lived in the Golden Days of our city and our country.
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