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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Chris Schmidt on his run for District 11 of the Madison Common Council
Chris Schmidt
Chris Schmidt

An executive committee member of the Dane County Democratic Party, Chris Schmidt hopes to unseat one-term incumbent Tim Gruber in the westside Dist. 11 aldermanic race.

Schmidt, 31, works as a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, having received his Master's degree in Atmospheric Science from UW-Madison.

Schmidt is a member of Friends of the Arboretum and Friends of Lake Wingra. He was also part of the effort to save the Mic 92.1.

A brief interview follows.

The Daily Page: Development in Dist.11, particularly around Hilldale and the Midvale Plaza sites, is adding many new housing units and more retail to the area. How would you define appropriate density with considerations to affordability and traffic?
Schmidt: Appropriate density must be a balance between the needs and desires of the nearby neighborhoods, the city, and any other entities involved in a particular project. The neighborhoods of the 11th are healthy and well established, and redevelopment should serve to enhance those neighborhoods without creating threats to them.

Creating a potential for a surge in property assessments as well as dramatically increasing traffic are two such threats, though both can be mitigated by careful planning. Furthermore, a consensus acceptable to the majority can be reached through the efforts of proactive leaders. Density for density's sake is not an example of foresight or courage in leadership, no matter how noble the motivation. The city exists of and for the people who live in it.

What kind of transit needs do you see in Madison, particularly for residents living and passing through your district? How do we get there?
District 11 has a significant amount of through traffic both into and out of the core of the city. We have commuters on their way to their jobs and people dropping their children off at school and people running errands all over the city. Long-range mass transit that gets people around town in a timeframe comparable to what can be done in a car (instead of much longer) will go a long way to bringing more riders to our bus system.

Given the reality of pre-existing sprawl on the edges of the city, park and ride locations could be established to help take pressure off of the major arterials. Our transfer points could serve that function if parking was available on-site, but it is not. At the same time, we should ensure that second and third shift workers have reliable transit options that don't force them to drive or take far more expensive alternatives.

You say small businesses are the "backbone of our economy," and that they ought to be supported by city policies. Does Madison have a supportive business climate? What improvements would you like to see?
In recent years, we've seen a few of our larger homegrown companies leave town and take epic-sized chunks of jobs with them, leading in many cases to both increased commuter traffic and sprawl. In a city that has the kind of physical and social infrastructure that we have, this trend is hardly inevitable.

Clearly there is an issue with our "business climate," and it impacts the small businesses as well as the larger ones. We can support workers' rights and their benefits while also finding ways to improve both the perception and the reality of our "business climate." Encouraging local businesses that keep money in our local economy and that keep jobs in the core of the city benefits us all by simultaneously supporting our local economy and reducing incentives for sprawl.

The city has tools to do that, and the city leadership can be proactive in the process by being aware of the needs and opportunities that the growth of our local businesses provides.

The state Department of Administration proposes to rebuild the Department of Transportation building at Hill Farms as well as create employment opportunities and residential diversity. How would you like to see residents in your district get involved in the Hill Farms project? What development would you like to see?
We need proactive leadership from the alder to help ensure that we are an integral part of redevelopment. We also need to stay involved, and encourage our neighbors to be involved as well. Many residents are skeptical that their input isn't being taken into account, and given recent experiences elsewhere in the district that skepticism is very understandable.

We need to know that our representatives will work to ensure that the redevelopment will serve our needs and not unduly disrupt the neighborhood in the process of providing benefits for the city at large.

Hill Farms presents tremendous opportunities for community space, such as the community garden, the farmer's market, and a location to watch Rhythm and Booms. The DOT site already functions as a de facto park-and-ride location, so we should examine formalizing that role. Employment opportunities are also important, as that will limit the economic forces behind sprawl. With appropriate leadership and neighborhood input, this redevelopment could be a showcase project just as the Hill Farms neighborhood was originally.

You advocate cooperation between the city, the state, and UW-Madison as a way to address issues such as energy consumption. How do you think that dynamic is working today? How can it be improved?
I advocate cooperation between the city, the state, and the UW on innovative strategies to improve our community such as drawing new types of businesses into the city and addressing issues like energy consumption.

The cooperation between the three could be pursued more aggressively. After years of ground-breaking research work on campus and a great deal of publicity, we have a major investment going into biomedical research on the UW-Madison campus, but our city and university also produce a great deal of expertise in a wide range of other fields. That expertise can be leveraged as well.

For example, there is a strong interest on the part of Madison to find cleaner, renewable forms of energy. Biofuels are receiving some attention, and we have companies like Virent Energy Systems that are leading the way to create fuels that have low environmental impact. We could be attempting to draw in researchers in the field of organically-based solar cells, an area that potentially could lead to cheap solar power made via processes with a minimal impact on the environment.

This kind of effort would require that the city, state, and UW-Madison work together, each playing its own role in attracting that work here. We need to be proactive and look beyond the well-known assets like our biomedical research community. Opportunities to boost the city and state as a whole are out there, and we can find them.

A west side neighborhood planning council has been proposed to help facilitate better communication between west side neighborhood associations and business associations. What is your vision for how the council would work? How should it be funded?
Planning councils have worked as a tool for north, east, and south side neighborhoods, but they are not a one-size-fits-all tool, so the solutions that have worked elsewhere may not be the best ones for the westside. Neighborhood dynamics are different, the needs on the horizon are different, and the condition of the infrastructure is different.

The near westside could perhaps be well served by an "association of associations" that would provide a forum for various entities to trade information and achieve consensus, and perhaps it could have a facilitator working part time to assist in its functioning as needed. However the current model of planning council involves having a paid planner, which requires fundraising, and that has been problematic for the East Isthmus Planning Council according to recent reports.

Before deciding what type of tool we need on the west side I think we need a clear definition of the problem to be solved, and so far I have only seen that the existing process could use more resources and attention, and I am not convinced that means we need to go the planning council route. With sufficient resources directed to the city's planning department and a proactive alder acting as an effective liaison between all the entities involved, we can improve the process and find solutions that address the issues.

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