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Citizen Dave: Grocery stores and the making of the Grandview Commons neighborhood
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Why did this proposed Copps at Grandview Commons generate such controversy?
Why did this proposed Copps at Grandview Commons generate such controversy?

It's a tale of two groceries.

In the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood, almost in the shadow of the Capitol, a developer proposes a 60,000 square foot grocery store and gets cheers from the neighbors. Ten miles to the east, in a new subdivision built along new urbanist principles, a proposal to build a slightly smaller Copps grocery store creates years of controversy that may culminate in a decision Tuesday night at the Madison Common Council.

What's going on here? Why does a big store in an old neighborhood (some would say an "old" urbanist neighborhood) meet with enthusiasm while virtually the same store proposed in a new neighborhood that purports to be built along the same lines as the old one meet with such disdain?

Part of it goes back to what was promised to the neighbors. When the Grandview Commons new urbanist subdivision was laid out a decade ago, the prospective residents were promised a little slice of nostalgia and a small piece of heaven. The idea was to recreate the tight, pedestrian and bike friendly neighborhood with a little park and the corner stores that you could walk to. The plan called for a grocery store as a key element of the utopian vision, but that store couldn't be more than 20,000 square feet.

Then reality intervened. The developer, Veridian Homes, started working with a much bigger model for a store that would serve not just the neighborhood but also traffic on Cottage Grove Road. Veridian argued that a smaller grocery couldn't make the numbers work.

A few years ago pretty much exactly the same thing happened on the other side of Madison (actually in Middleton) at the county's first new urbanist development, Middleton Hills. There was the same kind of fight, but eventually the larger store went in and it worked out okay.

Back on East Washington Avenue, nobody made any promises to the neighbors about the size of grocery stores, and they're just delighted at the prospect of a full-service operation right down the street. It also doesn't hurt that the store would replace a vacant used-car lot.

I have some sympathy for the Grandview Commons neighbors who want the developer to stick to the vision they bought into. But neighborhoods are always compromises between the various desires of those who live there and the push and pull of market realities. Old neighborhoods like Tenney-Lapham are the result of generations of those conflicting pressures, piling up on top of one another, and over time producing -- if we're lucky -- an interesting place.

I do not have sympathy, however, for how some of the Grandview neighbors treated their alder, Lauren Cnare. Cnare is a voice of calm reason on the city council. She's also a sane person who doesn't need the hassle of dealing with people who can't be agreeable when they disagree. The controversy has led Lauren to the conclusion that she can find other productive ways to contribute to her community and she won't run again. Her constituents for and against the store and the city will lose in that equation.

I suspect the same thing will happen at Grandview Commons. The place was built with good bones. And while it has its own contentious history starting now, it will eventually be a place of accumulated dreams and compromises played out on the landscape. It will have its successes standing next to its flaws, and that will make it all the more real.

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