Marquette neighborhood grapples with proposed development at 722 Willy Street
Neighborhood planning covenants are playing into the debate over a large mixed-use development proposed for the 700 block of Williamson Street which would fill in the parking lots between and behind Ground Zero Coffee and the Olds building, possibly reaching ten stories into the air.
Baldwin Development Group wants to build a $46-million retail and housing complex on property owned by Williamson Associates, LLC, an entity of the The Rifkin Group, which also owns three other buildings on the block. The three-tiered design, currently named “722 Williamson”, would feature retail and office space along Williamson with seven- and ten-story apartment towers deeper into the property.
The proposal is drawing mixed reactions from the neighborhood, with some hailing its design and density and others bristling that the towering building exceeds the Williamson Street 600 to 1100 Blocks Better Urban Infill Development (BUILD) Program II plan, which seeks to preserve the historic character of the street. District 6 Alder Marsha Rummel says the development would include approximately 220 apartments, 5,600 square feet of commercial space, 386 parking stalls and co-working space.
“The global sense of the project is to create a final piece to the 700 block that really captures the historic sensibility of the block, but also building a modern building,” Baldwin Development Group Principal Jim Bower tells Willy Street Blog. “The desire is to fit in to the fabric and the context of the streetscape along Williamson and certainly stepping the building back towards the bike path and the Cap[itol] East District.”
Bower says they want to create a project that stands the test of time by creating the most bike-friendly development in the city with a big investment in co-working space, a strong connection to the bike path, bike lockers in each living unit, water capture systems for the rooftop gardens, and infrastructure for eventual rooftop solar panels.
The mostly brick exterior building will have plenty of glass as well as metal accents.
Four stories will sit on Williamson Street and align height-wise with the Olds building to the west and the Madison Candy Company building to the east. The face of the building will be articulated with balconies on the top three floors and retail or restaurant space on the ground floors.
The first tower, which extends up an additional three stories, is set back 40 feet from Williamson, which Bower notes is ten feet further than what is required in the Willy BUILD plan and which he says is to “give Williamson Street the credit it’s due”.
The ten-story tower will stretch east-west along the rear of the property in the shape of a three-sided rectangle facing south and sit atop a four-story parking deck with one level underground.
Baldwin Development says 172 of the 336 parking stalls will likely be available after 5 p.m. for neighborhood use at hourly parking rates.
Bower says that they are currently planning four residential unit offerings: a very efficient one-bedroom, a larger one-bedroom, a two-bedroom and a three-bedroom. Twenty-six units will be available for affordable housing applicants based on 60 percent of Dane County median income ($61,913) with the rest of the units being offered at market rates.
Site access challenges
Bower says that the project could not go forward without the cooperation of John Martens, who owns the Madison Candy Company building that currently hosts Ground Zero Coffee and the Eldorado Grill. Martens has agreed to turn over two-thirds of his parking lot to allow a marked bike path to flow through the lot connecting Williamson with the Capital City Trail.
Martens, a longtime area property owner who first lived on Willy Street when he “crashed” in an apartment above Dolly’s Cafe (now St. Vincent de Paul) in 1969, for years has been deeply engaged in determining how the neighborhood has and should evolve.
“I have seen many concepts over the years, and in my opinion this is by far the best. This configuration truly engages the street and neighborhood in many ways, and it shows a quality and refinement of design that we seldom see in Madison,” Martens wrote in an e-mail to Lindsey Lee, chair of the Marquette Neighborhood Association Preservation and Development Committee (MNA P&D). “True, it is an 800 pound gorilla, and it will loom high over the Madison Candy Company, but it will be a far better neighbor than the massive cage full of wild orangutans that might show up next.”
Martens added that he thought the height of the ten-story structure would be absorbed by the Madison Gas & Electric plant behind it to the north, which, combined with its stacks, towers at least another 100 feet into the air.
While Martens has a vested interest in any new development succeeding next door, the traffic flow around the site could be challenging. There will be two entrances on Williamson, one on South Livingston, and one on South Blount. The Livingston entrance will pass between the Wisconsin Council for the Blind & Visually Impaired at 754 Williamson Street and the recently built Livingston Place apartments.
Cars entering from the east off of Livingston will have the option to proceed on a mostly straight path into the parking structure or zig-zag left and right, eventually arriving in the shared parking area with Ground Zero. The western entrance off Williamson will provide a straight path to the parking structure, but will have to contend with commercial trucks from time to time using a loading dock on the east side of the Olds building.
Baldwin Development hopes that most of the users of the complex will use the entrance off Blount which would feature a long driveway passing behind 301 South Blount [housing Google’s Madison office] and then entering the parking structure. During an August presentation before the MNA P&D committee, member John Coleman raised concerns about how much green space the driveway along the bike trail would reclaim.
Bower said that they had been working with the City of Madison Traffic Engineering Department to design the entrance, which would eliminate some parking stalls behind Google but would net 900 square feet of green space.
Expanding on the bike friendly theme, Bower said they were considering a water fountain and bottle filling station along with compressed air adjacent to the Blount entrance.
“I think the design does a good job balancing historical compatibility with modern design. I think they can improve the side of the building facing the bike path. A large building in this location should not present a “backside” to a heavily used pathway,” resident Steve Stienhoff said in an e-mail to the MNA listserv. “The first [two to three] levels facing the path would be parking. Images presented show trellises that vines could grow on. I think they could do better. For example, what about displaying art? ”
Honoring Willy BUILD
Following the August P&D meeting, which was the second presentation to the committee, Marsha Rummel held a community meeting September 9 to allow Baldwin Development to present its plans to the community. Reaction was mixed as the discussion continued on the MNA listerv.
While both supporters and detractors had quibbles with various design aspects, the height of the ten-story portion of the development received the most attention. Those opposed to the project were very concerned that the height would denigrate the character of the neighborhood and that the project violated the basic tenets of Willy BUILD plan.
“It is completely out of character with the neighborhood and sets a precedent that is unlikely to help preserve the character of the businesses and homes that has been developed over recent decades,” resident Lucy Mathiak wrote on the MNA listerv.
“The ten stories will affect everything from sunlight to traffic density in an already congested area, ” she continued.
Another poster, “Linda”, encapsulated many of the complaints about the project: that the P&D Committee, in offering its recommendation to the MNA Board, should primarily heed the Willy BUILD plan, which was adopted by the City Council. She questioned whether the developer truly qualified for the additional floor bonuses through such things as affordable housing.
“Zone III has a maximum height of 54 feet or 5 stories, whichever is less. Zone IV has a maximum height of 54 feet or 5 stories, whichever is less. However, up to 2 bonus floors may be added if conditions are met (meeting affordable housing, preservation, and/or structured parking conditions),” Linda wrote. “The maximum height, with bonuses, is 85 feet or 7 floors, whichever is less. Though, since the developer placed affordable housing at about 12 percent, no existing building is being preserved, and the structured parking applies to non-residential projects, it is questionable whether the 2 floor bonus would be available.”
John Coleman also noted through the online neighborhood conversation that the development as currently proposed may have run afoul of the East Rail Corridor Plan as well as two zoning areas that cover the property. Coleman says the development may not comply with the TSS (Traditional Shopping Street) zone but the PD (Planned Development District) is much more open.
“City staff have advised that a PD is the most appropriate path for the project (vs TSS). So this is the direction we will be going, ” Bower wrote when asked by Willy Street Blog to respond to the zoning issue raised by Coleman.
Jim Bower is no stranger to public sector development heading up the Commercial and Industrial Development section for the City of Chicago and managing the Brownfields Program for the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2010, Jim’s Bower Group was hired by the City of Madison to help market the Capitol East District (changed by Bower and other consultants from the Capital Gateway Corridor Plan) to attract more developers.
Density meet stagnation
Others posters to the listserv agreed that the BUILD plan is an important guiding document but it is malleable and should evolve over time. Many who indicated various levels of support for the project felt that the P&D Committee has more latitude to accept various projects that would truly benefit the neighborhood.
“Ambiance, aesthetics, and individual notions of character are meaningful in place making. But in advocating for these preferences, please don’t forget what is needed for our local economy to support the families that take the risks in running these businesses,” wrote Tom Christensen, a past president of the Greater Williamson Area Business Association (GWABA).
“All of this is connected, and small businesses do still need more customers, and preferably local customers. Concentrating new residents at the bike path seems a fair compromise to these two unnecessarily competing preferences,” Christensen continued.
Current GWABA President David Lohrentz, who attended the August P&D meeting, tells Willy Street Blog that his association met this past week, and arrived at the conclusion that this development would be more the exception than the rule.
“We are willing to support the ten stories in this case because the height is in the back of the block, stepped down to an appropriate height, is on the north side of Willy St, and is backed up to the MG&E plant. We don’t see this as setting a precedent because very few sites (if any) would have the same characteristics as this one,” Lohrentz wrote in an e-mail.
“We would like to encourage the developer to continue to improve the design of the building, to make it a landmark design. We are also encouraging city officials to improve public parking options, park-and-ride options, and public transportation options in the neighborhood so that in the future, developers who are replacing parking lots in the railroad corridor don’t have to make parking figure so heavily in their designs.”
Lohrentz added that the additional entrances on the other streets would reduce traffic on Willy Street, noting that currently lot users can only enter and exit on Williamson.
“We are getting what we expected from Marquette [Neighborhood], which is very thoughtful feedback from all sides of the issue,” Bower said. “There’s obviously different values in play…there is [sic] values about staying true to what we planned [and] agreed to in the neighborhood plan that is in place. There is [sic] other voices really speaking to what is the context, and does the context support the building we’re proposing.”
Housing the untethered
Baldwin Development Group, in building the project, is targeting the untethered worker by hoping to offer at least one floor for co-working space, which provides live-work-play all in the same place – something it seems the neighborhood already provides, albeit spread over several blocks.
For developers, in order to solve the parking woes, often structured parking is the only option; however, that can run $26,000 per stall, an estimate used in proposals to the City during the Block 800 competition. To offset these costs, more residential and commercial units are needed to make the project financially viable, and that usually means going vertical.
“Last thing I want to do…[is propose] a ten-story building.The extraodinary cost, of adding that commercial parking to the project, creating this additional face on Williamson. We also have somewhere between $1-2-million dollar clean up bill for the environmental issues on site,” Bower said. “We are trying to reel in the project financially so that the ask to the city relative to the gap [a financial gap], that could only be filled by TIF [Tax Incremental Financing], trying to make sure that is a reasonable request.”
While Bower said the setback of the tallest tower against the MG&E plant is an attempt to eliminate the experience of height on Williamson, they could reduce the parking levels, but he cautioned that doing so would reduce availability and force more people to find options on the street.
Recommendations coming soon
P&D Committee Member Joshua Clements has been open in his support of the project both at the August meeting and online, posting several detailed point-by-point analyses of what was good and what needed to be improved.
“I am in strong support for this project, with suggestions for improvement. I support the conceptual design, mix of uses, and height. My concerns are primarily focused on design and materials,” Clements wrote.
“This development fits a reasonable number of residential units into a mixed-use development, and height is required to do that.
Demand is sky-high for housing on the Isthmus, especially our neighborhood. Anyone that has been looking to rent or buy, such as myself, over the past decade can attest to this fact.”
Late Sunday evening, (September 15) P&D Chairman Lindsey Lee, Owner of Ground Zero Coffee and a resident directly across the street the potential development, publicly supported the project by posting a lengthy letter on the MNA listserv signed by himself and his wife Beth Rosen.
“I believe that we as a community and as a city have committed ourselves to building a more dense urban area. I do not believe that means that every area of the city should be eyed for high intensity development. Instead, this increase in density should be strategically placed,” Lee wrote. “Do we fear the lost of street parking and many more neighbors joining us on the 700 block? Sure we do. But we also want to look forward to the excitement that will come with it as well.”
“When we built our house right on Willy Street we were making a commitment to urban living,” Lee added. “This is Madison. We can protect and preserve the best of the past while promoting and building a more exciting and sustainable future.”
As with all neighborhood input, recommendations are passed up the chain. The P&D Committee will meet on Wednesday, September 18 at 8:00 a.m. at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center (953 Jenifer Street) to discuss and vote on a recommendation to the MNA Board.
The MNA Board will take up the recommendation during its monthly meeting Thursday, September 19 at 7 p.m. at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. Board President Michael Jacob has announced that Baldwin Development Group will make a presentation followed by Q & A and input from attendees and discussion by the board.
The Board can decide to accept, modify, or reject the recommendation, and will forward it to the City of Madison, which has the only legal authority over the approval of the project. While not binding, the City usually gives appreciable deference to neighborhood input.
Whether you are tethered or untethered, scared of heights or can leap ten-story apartment towers in a single bound, the MNA would likely appreciate your input.
Update [9/18/2013]: Post has been changed to reflect the correct name of the restaurant John Martens lived above in 1969. It was Dolly’s Cafe, not Dolly Madison’s as was previously published. He also notes Dolly’s was “..frequented by Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits and many other genuine characters in its bohemian heyday.”
Update II [9/18/2013]: Updates Dane County median household income per U.S. Census figures.