Two proposed zoning amendments in Madison would remove roadblocks to the proposed Edgewater Hotel redevelopment and knock down restrictions on future lakefront projects.
“I hope it’s a movement toward rationality and wanting to make things happen,” said Brad Binkowski, principal for Madison-based development firm Urban Land Interests Inc. “I think it’s a breath of a fresh air sweeping through the political process in the future.”
Binkowski, whose firm deals predominantly with downtown projects, is no stranger to Madison’s strongly regulated development scene. Although he has no immediate stake in Brookfield-based Hammes Co.’s proposed $93 million redevelopment of the Edgewater, he said many developers would agree the city’s work to clear the way for the project is an encouraging sign for others.
But Fred Mohs, a member of the downtown Madison neighborhoods association Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. and a real estate development attorney, said such changes in the city’s zoning code would open up the lakefront to development the city has traditionally restricted.
The Common Council on Tuesday will consider two amendments to its zoning code. One amendment, from Alderman Mark Clear, would eliminate the city’s waterfront setback requirements for commercial property.
The other amendment, from Alderwoman Bridget Maniaci, would allow the use of public money for construction, eliminate a 45-year-old prohibition against building on certain space on Wisconsin Avenue and allow the owner to sell units as condominium space. The existing ordinance prohibits owner-occupied units in the building.
Maniaci did not return calls to discuss her amendment.
But Clear said his amendment will eliminate the need for a variance from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to build the Edgewater expansion near the shore of Lake Mendota.
Even if the board approved the variance, Clear said city preservationists might want to appeal the decision. Any appeal of a zoning board decision has to be handled in Dane County Circuit Court, and Clear said he wants to keep that debate at the Common Council level.
“The amendment is consistent with what’s in the new zoning code, so it would already be in place if the code were approved,” he said. “We thought six months ago it would be approved, but it’s taking longer than expected.”
Rick Roll, a city planner working on the new zoning code, was unavailable for comment before deadline.
But Mohs said that although the amendment might be aimed at the Edgewater, its effects could go far beyond.
“There’s no logical reason why commercial development should be able to be built closer than residential,” he said. “The question is: What do you think happens next door?”
The Edgewater is one of only a few lakefront commercial properties in the city, but Mohs said developers would have no reason not to propose tearing down other residential lakefront properties along Langdon Street and rebuilding them with commercial components.
“If, by having commercial use, you can walk away from the lakefront ordinance, well that becomes a lot more valuable as commercial space,” he said. “All you have to do is think of a mixed-use building with some condos in it, and we spend the rest of our days battling inappropriate high-rise development.”
Madison developer Curt Brink said developers might consider that, but will likely take more stock in the fact that city leaders are trying to encourage a downtown project.
“There are barriers right now, and really, there’s no negotiation with barriers, so downtown is severely hindered,” he said. “These amendments allow the city to make up for the sins of the past. This is not a blanket thing for the city, it’s looking at this project and the city’s rules and going, ‘Does this make sense here?’ It’s fair.”
Even if the amendments gain city approval, Brink said the Edgewater and every other development project will still have to work through city committees and the Common Council and get all the necessary votes.
But if the roadblocks aren’t in place, Mohs said, preservationists are going to be fighting many more proposals.
“Madison has a bum rap as a place to do business,” he said. “People look at what happened with their projects elsewhere, and say it was easier there than it was in Madison. Well, all the best places have regulation. The limits are some of what makes it nice.”