City planners and neighborhood residents at a meeting Wednesday on the West Mifflin area essentially landed into two camps: knock down the dilapidated houses, or enhance the existing gems.
Wednesday's Plan Commission work session at the Madison Municipal Building allowed members to brainstorm with city planners working toward a final Downtown Plan. The West Mifflin Street area with its aging student housing has drawn the most debate in the plan that will be finalized this spring.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said city planner Bill Fruhling. "You have to look at the economics, most [houses] have been long-term student rentals that aren't competing with student high rises."
Fruhling added, however, that city inspectors say the backbones of the triple-decker beer havens are still strong despite the cosmetic blemishes.
Sam Polstein, representing UW-Madison's student government, said initial meetings have shown overwhelming support of one plan to preserve the houses (PDF) and continue a three-story height limit.
For that sort of plan to continue former Ald. Judy Olson suggested attaching funding to rehab the aging houses.
"I'd only be able to make that planning statement if there was a financial incentive with it," Olson said. "Otherwise we'll continue to go to the wrong direction."
Ald. Julia Kerr pointed to the profitable high-rise style living as the driving factor behind the future of the area.
"I believe the 400-500 blocks should be redeveloped entirely. I don't think 2-3 stories make a lot of sense," Kerr said adding that the nostalgia for the area should not hold back its development.
One proposed compromise, according to Fruhling is a middle block design that would utilize the wide gap between West Washington and Mifflin. The area is currently used for parking, and overflows with students at the annual Mifflin Block Party bash in May.
Fruhling said the mid-block development would require gathering numerous properties from individual owners to ever develop a large project.
"That would increase density in the area so maybe you could have your cake and eat it too," Fruhling said of the concept that would both maintain the houses, and increase density.
Commission member Mike Basford expressed support for a mid-block development since it would be in line with preserving pedestrian walkways in the neighborhood.
The iconic area developed as it did partly because it remained swampland until 1900 and grew up around the co-op that anchored the block at the corner of Mifflin and Bassett, according to city staff.
Planners also considered several other neighborhoods at Wednesday's meeting with much less controversy. They will consider adding a city park in a small lot to the Doubletree Hotel at North Bassett and West Dayton Streets.
Fruhling also discussed two pedestrian path plans that would connect James Madison Park with the UW-Madison campus. He presented a draft that showed what the city already owns we well as segments where land would need to be acquired.
"There is a well-established yet informal path in the mid-block area connecting Langdon to Lake Mendota that we're looking at designing into a safer inviting path that we think is worth pursuing."