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Madison looks to finalize its Comprehensive Plan, issues with density a chief concern

July 28, 2018 GMT

Madison is nearing the finalization of its updated master plan that guides development, policy decisions and budget priorities, but concerns have been raised throughout the process about changes that could result in more dense developments.

For more than a year and a half, city staff, residents and committees have weighed in and worked on an updated Comprehensive Plan for Madison — an over-arching document that informs city decision-making on development and prioritizes areas the city should focus on over a 20-year period.

“We’ve worked really hard throughout the process to really engage not only our public but also other agencies within the city, to make sure this is really the city’s plan and not the Planning Division’s plan,” said Heather Stouder, planning director. “We really hope that the plan serves as a guide for budget in the future, for city investment and also city policy and regulation.”


The plan, which has been developed under the Imagine Madison campaign, will update the city’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Members of the Plan Commission are expected to take up and potentially adopt it Monday.

Commission approval would allow the City Council to consider the plan on Aug. 7.

But the contents of the 159-page document, which provides high-level insights on things such as renewable energy and effective government, has not drawn the same amount of concern as the associated Future Land Use, or FLU, map, said Stouder.

While the zoning code dictates what can be built, the FLU map lays out a long-term vision of Madison by assigning properties a general category of use, such as residential, mixed-use or industrial.

The designations in the FLU map, along with the recommendations included in neighborhood and sub-area plans, play an important role in whether the Plan Commission approves developments.

The definition of some of the FLU map categories were changed as part of the Comprehensive Plan update with a few categories seeing a large increase in their suggested residential density, measured by units per acre.

“We increased the density parameters within those to better reflect what we’d seen actually developed over the last 10 years or so,” Stouder said.

“We wanted to better match the market and what we were actually seeing coming in.”

Schenk’s Corners concerns

To some residents in the Schenk’s Corners area, the density changes came as a surprise, said Brad Hinkfuss, chairman of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association.


About 11 blocks centered around the popular East Side intersection of Winnebago Street and Atwood Avenue remained under the same category in a draft map released in May as under the map connected to the 2006 Comprehensive Plan.

But that category, known as community mixed-use, had its suggested density more than doubled from up to 60 units per acre in 2006 to up to 130 units per acre.

While the neighborhood has largely welcomed projects, Hinkfuss said there was a worry that the higher density could put pressure on property owners, particularly those of single-family homes, to sell to a developer looking to maximize the number of housing units it can build.

“We’re not trying to keep (development) completely at bay, but at the same time, when we see on the horizon things that could change on a level that we think no longer feels like the neighborhood that it has been for years ... we think it’s worth taking a stand on,” he said.

These concerns were brought to the city, Hinkfuss said, and the Plan Commission agreed to reduce the categorization of Schenk’s Corner to neighborhood mixed-use that has a new density of up to 70 units per acre, putting the area more in line with its 2006 density.

Matt Brink, executive director of real estate advocacy group Smart Growth Greater Madison, Inc., said he supports the higher densities under the updated FLU map given that Madison is expected to add 70,000 people between 2015 and 2040.

40,000 housing units needed

Brink said he understands the desire to preserve neighborhood character, but if Madison is going to build the 40,000 housing units needed to accommodate the expected population growth, he said density is key for keeping people close to public transit and other amenities while also regulating rental prices.

“Both sides have very strong arguments. My concern is if we don’t maximize density when and where we can, we are going to keep only allowing market-rate units to be built because that’s all that is going to be able to be financed,” said Brink, who is the son of developer Curt Brink.

Since the draft FLU map came out in May, the Plan Commission has made several categorical changes to reduce the proposed density of properties throughout the city.

Other parcels have been re-categorized for higher density.

Updating the density parameters was the toughest part of the Comprehensive Plan, said principal planner Brian Grady. The map, though, looks largely the same as the 2006 version, he said.

Overall, the Comprehensive Plan focuses on six areas of importance — land use and transportation, neighborhoods and housing, economy and opportunity, culture and character, green and resilient, and effective government — that are then split into two broad goals and further divided into strategies and specific actions.

The plan advocates for continuing several of the city’s practices and programs, such as financing the Affordable Housing Fund, while it also reflects changes Madison has seen since the last plan was adopted 12 years ago.

The emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that affects an ash tree’s ability to store nutrients and water, was discovered in Madison in 2013. According to the city, ash trees made up 21 percent of street tree population at that time. The plan reinforces that tree diversity should be a priority in order to shape a canopy that is “resilient in the face of future threats.”

Another strategy suggests the city should partner with UW-Madison and other entities to test and build transportation infrastructure for autonomous and connected vehicles, reflecting recent technological advancements.

“The issues at the forefront of our future focus on racial equity, inclusion, resiliency, enhancing community and the ability of future generations to find success in a dramatically changing world,” the new Comprehensive Plan states.