On the night of Feb. 5, 2013, the Common Council settled in for the latest in a series of long, bruising fights over development.
Once again a controversial project had reached the body, this time a massive luxury student apartment building called the Waterfront, in the Langdon area, one of the city's historic districts. It's a neighborhood of frat houses, apartment buildings and some old lakeside homes, most of which have been converted to apartments.
Neighborhood advocates showed up in force, arguing that the development -- with 71 units and ranging in height from two to six stories -- was simply too big for the area. Even though the Plan Commission had approved the project, the neighborhood advocates had reason to hope they'd prevail.
City planning staff had opposed the project, writing: "Staff does not believe that the proposed...development is compatible with the physical nature of the surrounding area." The neighborhood advocates also pointed to the city's recently approved Downtown Plan, developed over the previous four years, which urged preserving the neighborhood's character.
But the neighborhood camp didn't count on a new player. Steven Cover, director of the city's Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development, had been hired about two years earlier but was still largely an unknown quantity in Madison.
During the long debate, someone asked Cover how he would reconcile the project with the city's new Downtown Plan.
"The Downtown Plan is not a perfect document, and I think we all know that," Cover told the council. "It's a policy document, it's not law, and we shouldn't treat it as such. The Downtown Plan is a guide, not law. Sometimes we'll be challenged to look beyond the plan to decide what's best for the city."
Cover advised approval, saying the neighborhood currently looked "tired." He said that although his staff's recommendation was "technically correct...if we do everything technically correct, we end up creating a city that's very rigid and boring." The council voted 15 to 3 in favor of the project, which is now under construction.
In a city where plans and process are sacrosanct, Cover's comments alarmed some people. "I was stunned by how he undermined his staff," says Ald. Marsha Rummel. "He said the exact opposite of what his staff report said. He did not respect their work, it seemed to me."
In the past year, critics fear, Cover and Katherine Cornwell, the city's new director of planning, have tipped the balance of power in favor of developers in the ongoing battle over the city's future.
Neighborhood groups have long thought of the city's planning staff as allies, says Fred Mohs, an attorney and developer who helped preserve Mansion Hill. "It's a shock to find yourself sidelined," he says. "We feel that the development interests are listened to with much more interest [than neighborhood groups]."
Cover contends that while a couple of controversial projects have grabbed headlines, he's worked hard to smooth out the process and ensure that Madison gets the best development possible.
Making a difference
Cover has spent his career jumping back and forth between the public and private sectors. But he's most enjoyed the civic work.
He grew up in a small town in Maryland and went to college at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where he earned two master's degrees: one in architecture, one in urban planning.
Cover's highest-profile jobs were as planning director for Fulton County, Ga., and later the city of Atlanta. Before coming to Madison, he was managing principal of HOK Architects' Atlanta office.
"I kind of missed the public-sector side of things," he says, explaining that in those jobs "you're making a difference in the future of a city."
"I'd heard nothing but great things about Madison," Cover says. "One of the things that attracted me to Madison is that the economic development division is within the department. Everywhere I've worked before that, it was a separate entity."
The division -- formally given the clumsy title of Planning and Community and Economic Development -- has 180 employees. Cover's department includes, among others, building inspection, community development and economic development. He also oversees the planning division, with about 30 employees, which is headed by Cornwell.
Cover came to the city at a time when it was perceived as being hostile to development. He doesn't believe the city was anti-development when he arrived, but says the process was a bit unwieldy. "Projects would bounce back and forth between boards and commissions," he says. "We've made a lot of improvements."
Early feedback for developers
To help streamline the workflow, Cover says he instructed planning staff to begin preparing reports for projects that come before various committees, including the Urban Design and the Plan commissions.
"We're now preparing staff reports to the Urban Design Commission. It helps lay out the basics of the project, identifies what Urban Design should be focused on," Cover says. "It's working so much better now."
Dick Wagner, an Urban Design commissioner, says the reports are helpful, particularly when sorting out which issues are the purview of which body.
Wagner is less complimentary of a new in-house committee Cover instituted, where city staff critique project designs before they move on to city committees.
Cover says the intent is to give developers feedback early on, to let them know what is likely to make it through the city's review process and what won't.
"Sometimes, projects come in and we'll say, 'Wow, this is great, this has to go forward,'" he says. "Sometimes we'll say, 'Look, this isn't going anywhere.'
"That initial meeting is so important. We identify the concerns, what's good, what's bad," he says. "We get very heavily involved in the design of these projects. That's part of our role here, to make the best project possible as it's going through the process."
Cover says the intention isn't to give developers whatever they want. Staff frequently says "no," but those rejections happen behind the scenes, during the initial stages.
Carole Schaeffer, executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison, a development lobby group, agrees that developers don't always get their way.
"I came in with a group that wanted to do something on the west side, and they said, 'No way, try again.' It's certainly not a developer free-for-all. They're very diligent on applying the standards."
But Wagner feels this added layer of review is confusing, especially when Urban Design doesn't agree with the staff. "Developers will feel like, 'Oh, gosh, I did everything staff said, why can't you rubber stamp it?'" Wagner says. "That's not our job to do that."
Wagner adds that the point of reviewing designs before a public body is that it gives citizens a chance to weigh in. "Citizens don't have a chance to get their views before the staff when the staff is making comments," he says.
But Mayor Paul Soglin says that this new initiative has worked wonders. He points to the Union Corners project, where developer Gary Gorman, the neighborhood and the major tenant, UW Health, were all at odds.
"The staff went back, worked on some concepts and the bottom line is this: They produced something that has made everyone happy," Soglin says. "Staff took into consideration the neighborhood's interest, the cost of the buildings and their own professional standards. It showed outstanding performance under the toughest of circumstances."
The citizen committees did not appreciate Cover's comments about the Downtown Plan during the February 2013 Common Council meeting. They had devoted hundreds of hours to crafting the document.
The Landmarks, Plan and Urban Design commissions called Cover to their meetings, asking him to explain what he meant in saying the city didn't need to adhere to the Downtown Plan.
Then -- and now -- Cover says he does take the city's planning documents, the Comprehensive Plan, the Downtown Plan and neighborhood plans seriously. But he believes they don't have the same weight as the city's zoning regulations.
"The zoning regulations are the legal side of things," he tells Isthmus. "Planning documents are a vision for the community. But they're not law. They're guides; they're a series of recommendations.
"So, they're very important," he adds. "But in that case, the Iota Court project, it did meet most of the requirements of the Downtown Plan. [The developers] really weren't deviating from it. There will always be those projects, when they come in, that don't meet all the plan requirements."
Soglin agrees that the plans are advisory, noting that they often change. He points out that in the 1950s, there was a plan to run an interstate highway right through the isthmus. The city eventually realized what a terrible idea it was and scrapped the plan.
Others are unhappy with deemphasizing plans. Wagner says that they may not technically be law, but that "plans are nevertheless adopted by a public body" and reflect its citizens' desires. "They should have a definite standing even if they're not zoning ordinance."
"I don't think the city is well served when department heads use their own personal reinterpretation of the standards and plans," he says. "They seem to be doing all they can to promote the developer viewpoint."
Eric Sundquist -- a Plan commissioner who voted in favor of the Iota Court development -- says that in the past, if the city liked a project that didn't conform to the neighborhood's plan, it would move to amend the plan. He says that Cover's consideration of the plans as advisory is justifiable, but he found it "disconcerting" that a shift was made without any public discussion -- especially for a document as fresh as the Downtown Plan.
"That said, I think a lot of our neighborhood plans aren't very good," Sundquist adds, suggesting they often reflect the desires of a neighborhood's elite property owners, not the neighborhood as a whole. "It might be a better outcome to not be so bound to our neighborhood plans.... Some are great, others less so."
Sundquist hopes that Cornwell, the city development director hired last June, can provide some focus to the neighborhood planning process and help craft plans that are inclusive of all interests.
Defining your path
For Cornwell, life in a city is never boring.
"In any city, you can create unlimited projects," she says. "There's always something to be done in a city. They're dynamic. And there's an opportunity to define your path."
Cornwell spent much of her early life moving around, to Denver, Houston, Tucson, Seattle and France. "I learned a lot about cities from moving," she says. She has experience in zoning, historic preservation and sustainable communities.
"Every day it's a little bit different," she says of her profession. "We deal with land use, design, transportation. It's always changing, and it doesn't feel dull."
Cornwell was hired after the Iota Court battle, but this is Madison, and it was only a matter of time before there was another such controversy.
"If I'd had my druthers, I would have liked to have my first year with no controversial projects," she says, adding, "It feels like it's been one controversial project after another. But that's the nature of planning."
It was another project in Mansion Hill that brought scrutiny for Cornwell. Steve Brown Apartments proposed demolishing a house at 127 W. Gilman St. and the 10-story Highlander apartment building at 121 W. Gilman St., and moving a house at 123 W. Gilman St. In their place, the company would have built three five-story brownstone-style apartment buildings. The Landmarks Commission rejected the proposals, saying the gross volume was much too large for the neighborhood.
The city's preservation planner, Amy Scanlon, submitted a report to Landmarks in January finding that the project did not meet the standards of the Landmarks Ordinance. But a month later, the commission was given a new report, this one cowritten by Scanlon and Cornwell, which found the project could meet the standards.
Ald. Rummel, who sits on the Landmarks Commission, questioned Cornwell vigorously about the new report during a Feb. 17 meeting: "There were things in [the January] report that are turned upside down," Rummel said. "I want to say publicly that I find that troublesome, that things that were much stronger statements turned a lot softer and smushier."
Cornwell says it's her job to review and supervise her staff. "Amy and I worked collaboratively on the report under an unreasonable deadline," she says. "The time crunch resulted in the release of a report that missed relevant information from the Mansion Hill Preservation Plan."
Cornwell also believed the Steve Brown proposal would be a much better fit for the neighborhood than the Highlander -- one of the projects that inspired the Landmarks Ordinance.
"I'm sitting there looking at the opportunity to get rid of one of the ugliest buildings in this town," she says. "I felt we got a little sidetracked in that us-versus-them narrative of the developer and the neighborhood. I was trying to find a path forward."
Steve Brown Apartments took extraordinary steps to improve the project, doing seven redesigns, she says.
"The applicant initially proposed a project that was essentially the Highlander on its side. Our team sent the applicant back to the drawing board to design a project consistent with the zoning. The new zoning is the product of a rigorous Downtown Plan process that results in more discrete building volumes aligned with historic patterns of development."
Cornwell says it's no surprise that tensions arise around development projects. But she says it's important to avoid dividing into opposing camps.
"We create these clear visions of where we want to go, and we put that in our plans," she says. "The other part of that is somebody's got to build out the vision we put in our plans, so we have to look at [developers] as partners."
Rummel says planning staff has a tricky job in trying to balance competing interests. She acknowledges that Cover and Cornwell are both new to Madison and busy as the economy rebounds.
But she feels that Cover hasn't reached out to residents and neighborhood groups the way he has to developers.
"When you're the director of community and economic development, your job is to balance the real estate development side along with the community development side, the people side," she says. "I just don't see a balance there. Maybe everything is much busier, but I don't see that Steve has taken the time to meet with the community."
Cover says he has reached out.
"We do neighborhood plans, so staff goes out there. When there are projects that come up, we'll go to those meetings. I always tell people if you've got an issue, come on in. Sometimes communities will tell us we've got some concerns about this project, and we'll meet with them."
Soglin says the department's "involvement with neighborhood groups has never been greater."
But Rummel notes that sometimes Cover doesn't even respond to her emails (Cover says he responds to all emails). "I'm not saying Steve doesn't hear people's concerns; it just seems that he's not really engaged with us," she says. "He's not engaged with alders, he's not engaged with our constituents."
Ald. Mike Verveer agrees that the department leaders are much cozier with developers than in the past.
"I haven't heard any complaints about the front-line city planners," Verveer says. "[But] through words and actions [of department leaders] the neighborhood activists are feeling less welcome to participate in the process than they once did."
Verveer also worries that department staff feel stifled by the new regime. "What has concerned me significantly is the low staff morale," he says. "I don't see signs of that improving among planning staff I speak with regularly."
Ald. Lisa Subeck says some conflicts with alders might just be the result of a new leadership style. But she does feel that Cover and Cornwell at times take sides on projects, something she never saw Brad Murphy, Cornwell's predecessor, do.
"[Murphy] had a talent for presenting the pros and cons without letting on his opinion," Subeck says.
Subeck loves the outside experience and perspective Cornwell brings to Madison, but adds, "I get frustrated when it feels like she is arguing for one thing or another."
Development at any cost?
Rummel fears that the planning department is under pressure, in part from Mayor Soglin, to build the tax base by ramping up development and approving more projects.
"The goal seems to be that the job of the planning department is to intensify real estate values," she says. "We've been in a recession, and we need those dollars to pay for all the great services we provide."
Soglin doesn't deny this charge, but says the city still has standards. "If we want to pay for all the social services and community services, we need to grow the tax base," he says. "That has to be a consideration in every project. It doesn't mean it's a determining factor, but it does need to be considered."
Cover says he doesn't feel pressure to approve projects. "We're obviously seeing more activity since the economy has turned around," he says. "The city has a reputation for approving quality projects. That's the key -- we're interested in quality projects."
But Rummel thinks the city's standards are more frequently not being adhered to. She worries that Cover and Cornwell are pushing projects they like, rather than what residents want.
"Is it a local democracy, a populist democracy, or is it a technocrat saying, 'We're the experts, this project is really cool, so we should do it'?" Rummel says. "Who are you working for? Maybe you think you're working for the city, but the perception is you're working for the developer."