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Housing project tests Madison neighborhood plan

Paul Snyder
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A Madison neighborhood is torn between following its long-term development plan and backing a housing project that pushes the limits of those guidelines.

“There’s support with a lot of reservations about the project,” said Pat McDonnell, president of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association.

The project, pitched by Madison developer Michael Matty and Madison-based Stone House Development, would refurbish eight houses along East Gorham Street and demolish eight others along nearby East Johnson Street to make way for a $15 million apartment complex.

The project received neighborhood support and unanimous approval from the city’s Urban Design Commission, but the proposal failed to earn approval from the Madison Landmarks Commission.

McDonnell said the biggest problem facing the proposal is the neighborhood plan, which calls for preservation of the area’s historic homes. The plan also restricts infill development on the block targeted by the developers.

“But maintenance of those houses over the years has really been subpar,” McDonnell said. “The bigger concern here is that the properties would virtually be at the bottom of anyone’s list if they’re looking to move into the neighborhood.

“We worry these properties would just stay vacant for years yet.”

Madison Plan Commission member Eric Sundquist said he is not sure that is enough reason to override the neighborhood plan.

“Following plans is a source of continuing tension on the commission,” he said. “If they don’t follow neighborhood plans or the city’s comprehensive plan, does that always torpedo a project? No.

“But there have been times when we’ve not held strongly enough to the comp plan.”

Alderwoman Bridget Maniaci, who represents the neighborhood, said she agrees the proposal for new housing would benefit the neighborhood, but it still is not an easy decision.

“The properties they want to demolish are run-down, more so than other properties in the neighborhood,” she said. “But the block has a lot of problematic attributes, like busy streets, that will not make this an easy project. It’s also a lot to think that everything I look at out of my front window will just be gone soon.”

Stone House Vice President Rich Arnesen said if the city approves the project, work will be under way by August.

“I’m not surprised that there was some resistance,” he said.

The Plan Commission will review the project Monday, and Sundquist said he does not know which way the commission will vote.

If the commission rejects the proposal, Arnesen said, developers will not try to revise plans and push the project again.

If that leaves the neighborhood with no alternative to a deteriorating housing stock, Maniaci said, nobody wins.

“At the end of the day, all the pros of the project win out,” she said. “Are the houses better as they are? We can worry about the rental market and what kind of tenants we could be attracting, but I think ultimately the cost to let these houses just sit would be too great for the neighborhood.”

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