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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  A Few Clouds
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New Urbanism conference highlights Madison's successes and its challenges
What city does right, and wrong

Glaeser says over-regulation limits the supply of new housing in cities.
Glaeser says over-regulation limits the supply of new housing in cities.
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New Urbanists love Madison.

For a beaming Al Fish, UW-Madison's associate vice chancellor, that was the message last week when he chatted with attendees of the Congress for the New Urbanism's national conference, held this year at Monona Terrace. Around 1,150 people turned out for the 19th annual convocation of advocates for mixed-use neighborhoods, skinny streets, bike-friendly thoroughfares and local food.

"I kept hearing that Madison was the best location for New Urbanism to tell its story," says Fish. Sure, Madison has made mistakes like the Triangle renewal project that destroyed the old Greenbush neighborhood in the 1960s, he notes, but the city learned, moved on and today it's clear that "the historic roots of New Urbanism are still in place in Madison."

Those roots include the work of both Andres Duany, one of New Urbanism's founding fathers, who designed the celebrated Middleton Hills development in 1993, and of pioneer city planner John Nolen, whose 1911 plan, "Madison, A Model City," helped shape many of Madison's iconic features - the unobstructed Capitol view, a UW campus that includes Picnic Point and Eagle Heights, the Arboretum around Lake Wingra, and a grand linking (not quite realized yet) of the Capitol Square to the beckoning shores of Lake Monona.

Fish's upbeat impressions jibed with what others were saying. A Denver development director, Troy Gardner, said he loved the downtown's urbanity and, even more, that it only took a few minutes to reach the UW-Madison's natural areas for his early-morning jog.

Architect Christopher Lopez praised the interplay between the campus and the downtown, saying that back home in Rochester, N.Y., the city's two college campuses are pretty much walled off from the town. "We don't have that synergy and connection that you do," he said.

For Fish, such praise was the ultimate compliment to the Madison citizens and officials who've guided the city through its often rancorous land-use debates over the years: "We all focus on the conflicts, but what this New Urbanist group looked at is the cumulative results of those conflicts and clashes. They endorsed what we've done. That's both an affirmation and a challenge."

Asked what the challenge was, Fish lowered the boom: "Madison's smugness has to be counteracted."

The conference drew planners, architects, engineers and landscapers from more than 40 states and 13 countries. Earlier conferences were staged in larger cities like Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C., but little Madison's leadership on bike and local-food issues and its rich history sealed the deal.

Nolen was the subject of four different events, including a detailed look at his planning principles and a bus tour. [Note: The author helped coordinate this tour with local historian David Mollenhoff and planning consultant Tim Anderson.]

Such fine-grain discussions were the meat and potatoes of the conference's breakout sessions. But when the New Urbanists met in plenary sessions, the focus often shifted to fervent, almost theological expositions on the nature of good city-building.

Stefanos Polyzoides, another of New Urbanism's founders, all but gutted and deboned architect-superstar Rem Koolhaas' international projects, characterizing them as exercises in neo-colonialism. In a featured 90-minute presentation, Duany and New Urbanism critic Charles Waldheim, a leader of the upstart "landscape urbanism" movement, danced around one another like the rival gang leaders in West Side Story.

But it was Ed Glaeser, a free-market Harvard economist and author of the superb Triumph of the City, who caused the greatest cognitive dissonance for the New Urbanists.

Glaeser is an unabashed booster of urbanity. His book is subtitled, "How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier." His premise, amply backed up with data, is that cities attract smart, creative people and that their collaborative brilliance spurs innovation and commerce and draws even more smart people.

But more than art and business benefit: So does nature. Glaeser's research shows that city dwellers leave a much smaller carbon footprint than do country and suburban folk in their sylvan glade, because urbanites live in smaller homes and are less dependent on cars. High-rises, Glaeser says, are environmentally friendly.

All this is music to the ears of New Urbanists - that is, until Glaeser makes them squirm. He says that over-regulation -especially restrictive zoning codes and excessive historic preservation - limits the supply of new housing in cities and drives up the cost of existing housing. And this causes people to head to the suburbs (or to the Sunbelt), where living expenses can be measurably cheaper.

This is a tetchy issue for Madison.

Madison has always been conflicted by density. It's honored in theory as a boon to mass transit and to sophisticated urban living, but often opposed in practice when a developer wants to put up a five-story condo down the street.

This ambivalence is understandable. Neighborhood scale is important (but not all-important), and some oversized designs are wretched. But as Glaeser said in an interview, while neighbors always deserve a say in the deliberations, they shouldn't have a veto.

"Every time you say 'no' to a new development, you're saying 'no' to a family that wants to move into the neighborhood," he said. "Every person in greater Madison who wants to buy is being impacted by a community that wants to shut things down."

The density issue is bubbling up beneath the new downtown plan and in the new zoning map still in the drafting stage. A quick survey: The business group Downtown Madison Inc. has criticized the plan for failing to promote greater density in areas like Mifflin Street.

Dennis Lynch, a development consultant, has circulated a critical memo (PDF) arguing that the city is creating a "dead zone" by capping most development at five stories, the point at which he says construction costs shoot up. Steve Cover, the city's new planning chief, is unfazed, responding that other developers don't share Lynch's views and that the five-story limit is not absolute.

This is important stuff because the new downtown plan and zoning map will set the city's DNA for the next 25 years. As Glaeser sees it, change is a constant in urban life. Cities that don't reinvent themselves fall into decay and fade away. With government as Madison's signature industry in decline, Glaeser's warning gives pause.

The buoyant Fish put it this way: "Instead of being smug about what we have, we should be challenged on how to be a steward for where we go from here."

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