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Shadow of demolition hangs over housing proposal

A rendering of the proposed 10-story housing tower on Spring Street in Madison. (Rendering courtesy of City of Madison)

A rendering of the proposed 10-story housing tower on Spring Street in Madison. (Rendering courtesy of City of Madison)

By Paul Snyder

A Madison commission member’s caution could unravel a developer’s strategy to build on property targeted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Madison developer Otto Gebhardt III is planning a 10-story, student housing project on the north side of Spring Street in Madison. The property is on a block the university identified in its 20-year plan for construction of a new academic building.

Gebhardt, whose proposal already is under scrutiny over the number of stories in the tower, said he is not worried about the university’s master plan, even if it means his tower could be torn down in 15 years.

“The thing is, the plan says 15 to 20 years is the minimum,” he said. “It might not actually happen for 30 or 35 years.”

But the project’s conflict with the master plan has raised at least one set of eyebrows on the city’s Urban Design Commission, which eventually will review the proposal.

“I hate to see anything built that’s going to last less than 50 years,” said Bruce Woods, commission chairman.

Woods said he is not ready to make a decision on the project, but, he said, he began questioning the proposal after receiving an e-mail from Gary Brown, director of campus planning and landscape architecture for UW-Madison Facilities Planning & Management. The e-mail explained the university’s plan for the property but stated UW-Madison’s indifference to Gebhardt’s proposal.

It’s too soon to worry about how someone plans to use land the university might need in 15 to 20 years, Brown said. He said he has discussed the university’s master plan with Gebhardt.

“It might delay our purchase of the property or have us focus on other needs around campus,” Brown said. “Right now, we’re not concerned.”

Still, it’s rare for a developer to propose a project on land targeted by the university, said David Miller, the UW System’s vice president of capital planning and budget. UW System campuses’ long-range plans — including those in Stevens Point, Eau Claire and Oshkosh — are intertwined with their respective cities’ development plans.

“Generally, once a city has signed off on a campus boundary, it wouldn’t issue a zoning permit for a different project,” he said. “Madison’s a bit different from other cities, though. The other campuses don’t have that scale of land.”

If Gebhardt builds the tower, the UW-Madison likely will have to pay more for the property if or when the university’s master plan applies. There are three aging rental houses on the property now, and, Brown said, it is likely the fair market value of the property will increase if they are replaced with a new housing tower.

The university already owns two-thirds of the block, he said, but does not have money budgeted to buy the remaining land.

“We’ll probably just have to pay a higher cost at that point in time,” Brown said. “We’ll deal with that when we get to it.”

Gebhardt said he’s taking a calculated risk with the project, betting that it will take longer than 15 years for the university to move on the property.

“If they came and said, ‘We’re doing this in five, 10 years,’” he said, “we wouldn’t be doing this.”

Gebhardt’s proposal and the city’s reaction are outside of the university’s jurisdiction, Brown said. But that almost certainly will change, he said.

“Most developers are good about respecting master plans,” Brown said. “You normally don’t see someone do something on land that could be developed in only 15 years.

“But if he wants to build it, that’s his choice. For the time being, it can provide some student housing in the area.”

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