After rancor over the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz vowed that, from now on, neighborhood associations would be just one of many voices around the table when new projects were considered.
He asked Tim Cooley, the city's economic development director, to study ways to streamline development. Cooley's report is expected to be presented to the Common Council by the end of the year.
When that report arrives, it may run smack into a host of planning documents that were created by neighborhood associations, formally adopted by the council and paid for in large part with city money.
Recommendations by heavy hitters, including Downtown Madison Inc. and the UW-Madison, to circumvent neighborhood input are blistering. DMI's own report to Cooley requests that "the city should review the way it recognizes neighborhood associations and the way they participate in formal city processes." Neighborhood input, it says, is often "detrimental to a rational, efficient and fair review process."
Since 2000, Madison's Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development has paid $170,000 for neighborhood associations to come up with their own plans (see sidebar). Some are in various stages of completion, but every plan that has made it to the council has been formally adopted.
"Once a plan is adopted, it's kind of a statement of a city's policy toward what's accepted and not," says Bill Fruhling, principal planner with the department's Neighborhood Planning, Preservation and Design section.
This way of doing things is supported, at least in principle, by Mayor Cieslewicz.
"As long as there is a balance between the neighborhood's input on a plan and the sort of broader citywide perspective, probably by staff, or hopefully the alder - I think it's good," he says. "That's the tension at the center of this debate."
Cieslewicz has signaled, on Edgewater and its aftermath, that he doesn't think neighborhood objections to projects ought to always prevail. But he admits that he hasn't thought a lot about the Neighborhood Grants Program.
Once upon a time, the most admired way to grow a city was top-down. Robert Moses set the pattern as New York City's influential "master builder" from the 1930s well into the 1960s. The bureaucrat used his powers to develop grand public projects including highways, bridges and tunnels, as well as Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center and the headquarters of the United Nations.
Along the way, Moses also demolished entire poor and working-class neighborhoods and created boondoggles like the 1964 World's Fair grounds. Even at the time, many of his monumental projects seemed divorced from their surroundings. Today, Moses' reputation is hotly debated.
Toward the other end of the spectrum is Madison's far more inclusive approach, as exemplified by its Neighborhood Grants Program.
In the 1990s, "a number of neighborhoods wanted to undertake a strategic look at their areas," recalls Jule Stroick, a planner in the planning department's neighborhood section. There were so many requests that Planning and Development couldn't respond to all of them in a timely manner. "So a number of alders brought forth the idea of a neighborhood planning program," she says.
Thus the Neighborhood Grants Program was born. Besides grants for traditional neighborhood plans, which might include a comprehensive look at traffic, parks, housing density and potential redevelopment, the department offers grants for physical enhancements to neighborhoods.
There's also a Neighborhood Leadership and Capacity Program, to strengthen neighborhood associations. (The separate city-led Concentration Neighborhood Planning Program does similar work for challenged neighborhoods.)
The average neighborhood plan costs between $40,000 and $60,000. Many cost less. Under the Neighborhood Grants Program, up to half the total can come from the city. And while it's usually "not a one-to-one match," says Stroick, the value of neighborhoods' contributions can now include things like volunteer hours.
Says Stroick, "We want to make sure that any neighborhood in the city that wants to go through the neighborhood planning process has an opportunity to do so, and not be stopped by what's not in their treasury."
In the case of the Regent Neighborhood Association, which is using its $10,000 grant to work with a consultant, city funding "is invaluable in our effort to shape the future of the historic University Avenue corridor," says Darsi Foss, association president. "Without the city's assistance, the Regent Neighborhood likely would not be moving ahead, or we'd be doing so in geologic time."
Cieslewicz, who lives in the Regent Street Neighborhood, agrees the program is working well. "That kind of template - doing something to structure the discussion - is probably the best answer."
Still, neighborhood associations can be problematic. They're not elected units of government, and anyone in a neighborhood can start one, even if it's to compete with an existing group. That's what happened in Mansion Hill, where the emergence of a second group stalled alders working on the first group's neighborhood plan, paving the way for Edgewater redevelopment.
Cieslewicz, for his part, says he's committed to giving neighborhood groups a say in what happens. "At the end of the day, of course, they have to live with whatever gets built," he says. "So certainly they should have some significant input on what gets built."
But he cautions that neighborhoods should not always have the final say.
"You've got neighborhood interests that you would hope are concurrent with citywide interests, but sometimes they aren't," says Cieslewicz. "Finding that balance between what a neighborhood wants - or at least what the most active voices in a neighborhood want - and what might be broader citywide interests, that process is difficult."
Fruhling agrees that neighborhoods need to be mindful of "broader city goals and objectives" and how a project relates to the community as a whole. But he prefers the Madison process to the more top-down approach, like at his former job as a senior urban planner in Peoria, Ill.
"Something I can clearly see, comparing Madison to there," he says, "is that a lot more things get done as a result of the plans, because there is this more inclusive process. People are more invested in it."
Where the grants have gone
Madison's Neighborhood Grants Program has helped many neighborhood associations create general planning documents.
These include neighborhood plans for Capitol Neighborhoods (Mansion Hill Neighborhood Plan, 2000), Greenbush Neighborhood Association (2001), Spring Harbor Neighborhood Association (2003), Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association (plan update, 2004), and Midvale Heights Community and Westmorland Neighborhood Associations (2007).
Grants have also been made for corridor plans, including: South Metropolitan Business Association (Park Street Urban Design Guidelines, 2001), Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association (Monroe Street Commercial Districts Plan, 2002), Regent Neighborhood Association (Old University Avenue Corridor Plan, 2004), and East Buckeye Neighborhood Association (Stoughton Road Revitalization Project, 2006).
And city grants have gone to create Special Area Plans, including: Ridgewood Neighborhood Association (East Central Development Plan, 2000), Lake Edge Neighborhood Association (Royster-Clark Market Feasibility Study, 2007), Greenbush Neighborhood Association (Greenbush-Vilas Housing Revitalization Strategy, 2008).
The Madison Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development welcomes grant requests from neighborhoods. For more information, visit www.cityofmadison.com/neighborhoods/grantprogram.htm