One of the most vexing issues facing Madison can be viewed when walking about in many areas of the city, but most notably on the isthmus. The number of cranes that are hoisting up building materials and cement buckets are a direct result of the massive push for more density with construction of rentals with ever-higher stories, some in areas that feel such growth is not in keeping with neighborhood plans and desires.
Just within four blocks of the Capitol Square alone it is calculated that there are 1,200 apartments that are either approved or under construction that will allow for 2,00o more people to live and spend money in the area. And when one views projects that are several more blocks from the Square the number only increases.
While density is a good thing, and allows for a robust and diverse community there are also pressures about transportation, noise, and attitudes that must be brought into the larger discussion about developer’s wish lists.
And with those questions comes the central one that more and more is a topic at coffee shops, local eateries, and places like my front lawn when folks stop by to chat.
Who at the city level is allowing or even encouraging the wet dream of developers to get a green light at almost every point in the process of building a new high rise?
This week the Isthmus published one of their must-reads (written by Joe Tar) that examines the inner workings of Madison planning staff, focusing on Steven Cover, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development, and Katherine Cornwell, director of planning. Over time both of their names have entered the city-wide conversation, both in frustration and angst when it comes to the development issues that are front and center as this city grows.
I felt the segment of the article that best summed up the running conversation among those of us who attend neighborhood meetings, and care enough to engage others in the dialogue appeared towards the end when Alders Marsha Rummel, Mike Verveer, and Lisa Subeck expressed concerns about the process along with top planning staff taking sides on plans.
The whole article is well worth your time, but the following struck a cord with me, based on previous conversations I have been a party to over the past months..
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.”