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Residents fear proposed Monroe Street development will change the neighborhood's character
Neighbors argue that the project defies the Monroe Street Commercial District Plan.
Credit:Taylor Harvey

Residents of the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood plan to appeal a recent Plan Commission decision to approve a mixed-use development on Monroe Street. But Ald. Sue Ellingson, who represents the area, says her guess is the appeal will fail.

"I think that smart growth is just critical to the future in our city -- to have developments along transportation corridors, to attract young professionals to our city," Ellingson says. "This is the lifeblood of any city."

The proposal (PDF) for a three-and-a-half-story development by Rouse Management, which will sit on the northeast corner of Monroe and Knickerbocker streets, has sparked controversy among the neighborhood's residents. It is scheduled for completion next summer, but residents will make their appeal to the Common Council at its Sept. 3 meeting.

Two areas of contention are the size of the development and the demolition of a residential structure on Knickerbocker Street to make way for it. Neighbors argue that the project defies the Monroe Street Commercial District Plan. Under a new zoning code (PDF), city officials must consider a neighborhood's plan before approving developments.

Some residents feel that the development could set a precedent for the neighborhood's future involvement in making decisions about housing projects, because the city's new zoning code allows for less neighborhood input. The Common Council passed the code in 2012 to institute a more efficient process in developing buildings throughout the city.

David Maraniss, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and associate editor for the Washington Post, lives in a bungalow adjacent to the property slated for development at 2620 Monroe St. He thinks the new building, and the precedent it sets, could have a detrimental effect on the neighborhood.

"If it drives families away from this vital urban area because of the increased traffic in urban neighborhoods, it hurts the schools and then eventually urban sprawl as well," Maraniss says.

"I think there is a delicate balance between development in commercial areas like Monroe Street and maintaining the solidarity of the neighborhoods that are nearby," he adds.

Lynn Pitman, a neighborhood activist, agrees. She says there are properties along Monroe Street that are similarly zoned, meaning that under the new city code, other developments could also receive minimal neighborhood input. This could eventually "really change the neighborhood's character," she says.

"In the long-term, vibrant, well-functioning neighborhoods are part of a city, and you do not want people to leave because they are unpleasant places to live," Pitman says.

Ellingson says city officials went through “enormous public processes with a lot of public input” to lay the ground rules for both neighbors and developers. And she believes residents' wishes were taken into account.

In the case of the Monroe Street development, Ellingson says the square footage is beyond what is permitted by the zoning code because of the parking lot, which was placed adjacent to the development as opposed to underneath to address public concern about protecting Lake Wingra springs.

"It isn't perfect," Ellingson says. "The neighbors will point out details in that it aren't exactly what the plan calls for, and they are right. But, in fact, I have yet to come across a project that met every requirement perfectly."

Pitman thinks a lot of people are looking for ways to participate meaningfully because of the "really big impact" the development would have on Monroe Street neighbors.

"There's always going to be some point at which reasonable people disagree on detail things," Pitman says. "But I think there are just a lot of people trying to figure out which way to handle input at this point."

To Ellingson and to those in support of the development, these types of projects are "what we need to make the city better."

"These are good people who live in this neighborhood, and they want what is best. I want what's best," Ellingson says. "And it's kind of tragic when we both want what is best but we cannot agree what that is."

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