High-density development, we are told, not only fights urban sprawl, but it will also put people back on our downtown streets. Hmm. How many people do you count in this picture? I count one.
Yes, high-density development can be a tool to fight urban sprawl. Then there's hyper-density development like Metropolitan Place, shown here. How much more of this can Madison absorb and still maintain its identity as an attractive, livable medium-size city? Endless high rise developments, looming straight up from the edge of the sidewalk, disrupt neighborhood scale and sightlines. They also make the city less, not more, appealing to foot traffic.
The issue has reared its towering head once again over on Old University Avenue where, the Capital Times reports, the Mullins Development Group hopes to build a high-rise apartment complex at Campus Drive and Highland Avenue that would be aimed at professionals, students, and staff at the nearby hospitals. With the exception of Lombardino's restaurant, the entire 2500 block on the north side of the street would be taken up by the mega-development. The Regent Neighborhood Association has given preliminary approval to a compromise plan that lops two stories off the 14 stories originally proposed by Mullins, but not all neighbors are pleased.
John Jacobs, a UW-Madison engineer who lives on the 2600 block of Kendall Avenue, has been among the most vocal critics. He said the city and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz are pushing high-density development in the name of "New Urbanism" with no concern for existing residents.In promoting infilling and high-density development, city officials have been trying to encourage things that make a lot of sense in theory, but as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. It's the details that so often seem wrong and totally out of proportion. Infilling is a great idea if handled sensitively, but with a few exceptions, it hasn't been. It's as if Jane Jacobs and her ideas about how to encourage healthy neighborhoods with a vibrant street life had never existed.
"The deck is stacked against those who want to retain the livability and charm of neighborhood," he said. "With the mayor, his pals from 1000 Friends and Progressive Dane marching in lockstep for hyper-density at every opportunity, it would be an uphill battle to scale this back after the Regent Neighborhood Association approves it."
Jacobs maintains the planning committee -- which was funded with $10,000 in city money and $5,000 from the Regent Neighborhood Association -- was "loaded with developers and friends of developers" including Brian Mullins, Jim Bradley of Home Savings and John Koffel of Delta Properties.
"This whole exercise was designed to give Mullins his 12 stories," said Jacobs. "It would look a lot worse if a few neighbors hadn't found out about what they were up to and tried their darnedest to push it back."
Madison is not Chicago or New York, and the Isthmus isn't the Gold Coast (yet). When you drop a 12-story development into the heart of a residential neighborhood in Madison, chances are you'll make it less neighborly and livable, not more.
11/01/07 UPDATE: I tried to summarize too much in one phrase, "preliminary approval," with misleading results. The Regent Neighborhood Association has not taken a stand on the project yet, and there will be a public meeting November 28 to discuss the draft planning document for the entire Old University Avenue corridor before it is presented to the city. See Robbie's comments for more details.