Madison is nearing completion on its Downtown Plan, a process that has dragged on for more than four years and will guide development there for a long time.
But the plan may well head to the Common Council this summer with contentious issues unsettled, some of which have received little public scrutiny.
Those issues include whether a signature park along Lake Monona should be created by infilling part of the lake; whether the State Street area should allow flexibility for larger retail stores (possibly including national chains); what should become of the iconic student Mifflin neighborhood just west of the Capitol; and whether there should be a strict height limit on buildings.
"This four-year process has been a bit too arduous for many downtown stakeholders," says Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents much of the downtown. "It's been difficult to pay attention and be aware when the most meaningful meetings are."
But, he adds, it's important for people to pay attention once again: "The ultimate document is an absolutely important one that will chart the direction of downtown for at least the next few decades."
Filling in Monona
In the early stages of plan development, many residents told the city they wanted better downtown access to the lakes.
City planners proposed creating a "signature park" on Lake Monona at Law Park, just east of Monona Terrace. The recommendation calls for "limited filling to expand the shoreline," among other things. Initial plans called for 1-3/4 acres of infill, though since then the Plan Commission told staff to take the specific amount of infill out.
The city's Committee on the Environment recommends against filling in the lake; the Board of Park Commissioners is in favor.
Plan Commission member Eric Sundquist opposed the idea but did not sway his colleagues. "It's really ironic to say we're going to have a sustainable park by filling in the lake," he says. "I know it's been done in the past. But it's a bad practice we shouldn't do."
Filling in lakes can affect water quality and kill both animals and plants. "The standard wisdom is what you're doing is covering up the nesting area," says Jim Lorman, a biology professor at Edgewood College. "There's critters living there."
Verveer admits the idea is a controversial one that is likely to be hotly debated. But he says "it's an idea worth exploring."
"The bigger question, frankly, is how do we pay for it?" he says. "All the recommendations in the plan are extremely costly. The price tag will be a bigger issue for us than coming to a community consensus about whether it is a good thing to do."
The future of Miffland
Early proposals called for razing the old three-story houses and replacing them with loft-style apartment houses. Many students spoke out against that idea. Then the proposal was to preserve the scale of the houses along Mifflin but allow taller infill development in the center of the blocks, behind the houses. The working proposal now calls for higher-density mixed-used buildings - up to six stories tall - along the block.
City planner Bill Fruhling says the planning staff is trying to refine this concept. "There are no plans to bulldoze it down and put up these buildings," he says, adding, "This is a long-term vision for that area. It's going to be more of a roadmap if somebody comes in with a proposal."
While Verveer says he is not against tearing down any particular house in the area (none are historic landmarks), he appreciates the neighborhood feel, with its generous setbacks and porches. He would like to see any new construction there mimic the current scale and massing.
"It really is a neighborhood where you get to know your neighbors," he says. "People hang out outside, which is pretty unique for most downtown neighborhoods."
More chain stores on State Street?
On page 22 of the draft plan, this line jumped out at Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway: "The future of retailing in the downtown needs to effectively mix the local businesses that make it unique with some of the national chains that can add stability to the retail base and provide an additional degree of familiarity that many shoppers like."
More chain stores on State Street? "My concern is we be clear about what we're trying to accomplish," Rhodes-Conway says. "I feel very strongly we should do whatever we can to protect State Street for local business. It's also important to pay attention to the mix. You don't want it to become all bars and restaurants."
Mary Carbine, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, says the BID supports the plan's recommendations for State Street. However, she says, that should not be interpreted as a call for more chain or big-box stores.
"We support a mix of local, regional, national and international businesses, including destination retail - stores that...will draw people outside the immediate downtown," she says. "Examples of these might be Fontana, the University Book Store, Urban Outfitters or American Apparel."
More important, the BID would like to see larger store footprints on the street, to allow more expansive stores to open or current ones to expand. But the street's current small footprints are what keep many national chains away.
Carbine says 85% of the stores on State Street are locally owned, a percentage that has hardly changed since 2007.
"A national brand doesn't need to be ubiquitous," she says. "A city-sized department store would be a great addition to downtown. Many department stores like JCPenney are reinventing themselves with smaller stores. The magic is in the mix for a retail area. It's in the variety."
Rhodes-Conway worries about the consequences of vague language. "Let's really think through the implications of whatever we're calling for," she says. "The plan is hedging in a certain area, and we're imagining a best-case scenario. But it's important we don't open ourselves up to unintended consequences."
Fruhling says the staff knows how important State Street is to the city. "We heard very clearly through the process that people love State Street, the whole vibe of the street. That's one of downtown's greatest assets. The plan is seeking to make sure it stays that way in the future."
Fruhling says he hopes the staff will have revisions ready for the Plan Commission to look at by June. This would put the plan in the Common Council's hands later this summer.
Rhodes-Conway says she understands how frustrating and confusing the process can be to the average citizen. But she says, "Now is the time for people to take another look."