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Madison mayor wants streamlined project approvals

By Paul Snyder

Madison developers and residents cannot agree on a predictable way to approve projects even though that is what the city’s mayor is demanding.

Curt Brink, a Madison developer, said developers need to know they can propose a project without worrying about a drawn-out review process that ends with a neighborhood group dismissing a proposal.

Neighborhood groups, conversely, need to know proposed projects conform to established city standards, said Fred Mohs, a member of Capitol Neighborhoods Inc.’s executive council in downtown Madison.

“Yes, there’s a process to building in Madison,” he said. “But up until fairly recently, that process has been reasonable and responsible. It’s also been very successful.”

But Brookfield-based Hammes Co.’s estimated $98 million redevelopment of the Edgewater Hotel cast a harsh light on the city’s approval process. The city review lasted more than a year before the Common Council last month approved the project. There were 28 city committee, council and commission meetings before approval.

During his state of the city speech Wednesday, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said the project highlighted deficiencies in city approvals. He said the council’s eventual approval was positive, but the arduous path did not help the city’s “difficult” development reputation.

“It’s important to send a message that Madison is a place where something can get done,” Cieslewicz said. “The process we have is too complicated and onerous.”

The mayor said changes are on the way, with business and labor groups working on recommendations to streamline approvals. He said the city’s Economic Development Commission will review the recommendations in a few weeks.

Cieslewicz said he wants a resolution for a new city ordinance in fall.

“I don’t agree that neighborhoods have too much power right now,” he said. “The problem is the process is not well-enough structured.”

The result as it applied to the Edgewater, Cieslewicz said, was continued debate over building height, parking and traffic movement. He said the city needs a linear process in which the focus is on one problem until it is resolved.

Alderman Michael Schumacher agreed but said it will not be easy.

“Pitching a project and knowing in three months that it’s not going to fly is a lot better than a yearlong review that ends with us saying, ‘It’s not going to fly,'” he said. “I don’t want to second guess what’s in place, but it’s a good time now to take a look at the process and see if we can streamline it.”

Brink said developers would appreciate a quicker process. In 2005, Brink was part of a development team that proposed a mixed-use project in the city’s First Settlement Historic District. Parts of the multibuilding development would have been eight stories.

Instead of talking to the development team about concerns, Brink said, the neighborhood group took six weeks to review the proposal before saying the group would not approve anything taller than three stories.

“There was no dialogue,” Brink said. “It was a local historic district, and if they say no, you can’t do it. It’s not fair.”

But Mohs said rules are there to give developers the predictability they’re asking for. He said the Mansion Hill Historic District has a 50-foot height limit for new buildings that no developer exceeded until Hammes’ Edgewater. Mohs said the Edgewater will be nearly 120 feet and violates the rules governing the area.

He said as cumbersome as neighborhood input can be, the city has always given a voice to residents.

“I don’t think the people of Madison have changed that much,” he said. “But they may have forgotten why we do things the way we do them.”

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