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Height, story limits cloud tower projects (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

A Madison developer is stuck between a city neighborhood’s height and story limits.

Otto Gebhardt III, principal of Madison-based Gebhardt Development LLC, said two student housing towers he has proposed for the Regent Street-South Campus Neighborhood are within the neighborhood plan’s 116-foot height limit for the area. But the towers, one at nine stories and the other at 10, exceed the eight-story limit for the site.

“We’ve talked to the neighborhood and university about it, and they’re supportive of the plans,” Gebhardt said. “As far as it goes with the city, we may have to make some height alterations. But we believe we’ve looked at this from all sides, and the positives outweigh the negatives.”

Gebhardt’s apartment complexes are proposed for a site near Orchard and Spring streets and would replace four rental houses.

The Urban Design Commission on Wednesday is scheduled to hear a presentation on the project. Bruce Woods, the commission’s chairman, said he’s more concerned about the building’s height than he is the number of stories. He said the neighborhood should have left the size restrictions to feet and not stories.

“As long as it’s not poorly designed,” he said, “I don’t think it matters the number of stories that are in there.”

Representatives from the neighborhood planning committee and city planning department were unavailable for comment before deadline.

Woods said he understands why height and stories are in the plan.

Developers, he said, often want to know how many stories constitute a particular height. If developers are left with story limitations, Woods said, they could build taller-than-average, multistory buildings.

The problem, Gebhardt said, is that the development team has to face the commission and defend why both buildings break a neighborhood guideline.

“Hopefully,” he said, “people will see the benefits.”

He said he does not yet have project cost estimates for either tower.

With public scrutiny over the heights of other projects, such as the Edgewater Hotel remodel, proposed for downtown, Woods said, the commission’s focus remains on aesthetics and adherence to neighborhood plans.

“You’ll have some developers come in with a building that’s taller than neighborhood standards, but they’ll say, ‘Look, we reduced it by four stories, isn’t that great?’” he said.

If the commission directs Gebhardt to remove stories from the buildings, he said, planners might have to go back to the drawing board and rethink both properties.

“I wouldn’t be so brash as to say we’d just walk away,” he said. “We’ve done it with other projects that got too complicated. But if you start changing what we have to offer here, you lose some of the efficiencies.”

Alderman Bryon Eagon, who represents the area, said plans are still tentative, and he wants to hear more local input on the project. But height concerns, he said, should not dominate the conversation.

“I don’t think it’s so much of an alarm to deter the project completely,” Eagon said.

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