Madison's "Hyper Democracy" drives development landscape

To State Street pedestrians, it can appear that construction is a never-ending process, an inherent part of the streetscape, but the process for gaining approval for these projects in Madison can be time consuming. 

For every construction cone placed on the street, Common Council, Madison’s legislative governing body, has approved it. 

“What we are essentially doing is allowing the regulation of new construction and building permits,” explained  Ald. Scott Resnick, District 8.

But it’s not just city officials who can influence development within the city. Members of Madison’s “hyper democracy” are active and present behind the scenes of development approval.  This very involved sector of the community is the most visible during open hearings and community meetings on developments that will have a great impact on the area.

Even before the city committee process begins, developers hosted community input gathering sessions, because in an extremely engaged community such as Madison, obtaining support from residents is almost as important as city approval. 

“Madison is a very communal process,” Resnick said.

Projects such as the Edgewater Hotel development, the Iota Court apartment deconstruction and the “church wars” of University Avenue where the new apartment complex XO1 now resides, garnered much public discussion.

But how Madison’s “hyper democracy” might influence a decision is not so easy to predict, according to Resnick.

The 100 block of State Street development also created community chatter during the approval process, but the “Hub” project on the 500 block of State Street, which involves a more substantial change to State Street’s landscape did not cause as much of a community uproar as Resnick originally thought.  

It is not always easy to predict which city development projects will stir up the most controversy, Resnick said.

City Council approved the “Hub” project Aug. 6, 2013, and developers plan to begin construction in January 2014.  

While the alders and mayor are actually the final voices on demolitions, land permits and new buildings, developers’ proposals must gain approval from several other commissions before the Common Council will even consider a development project.

The Urban Design Commission receives referrals and its members review design elements of potential projects. They decide whether or not the proposed building will fit into the context of the area.

Other agencies can become involved with a project, too. The city’s Plan Commission reviews the zoning and building standards. Depending on the project, referrals could be made to the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Landmarks Commission, if a developer proposes demolishing a historic building or creating a modern project in a historic area of Madison.

The Landmarks Commission reviewed the 100 block of State Street development project several times, which requires the demolition, renovation and refurbishing of several buildings in addition to 120 and 122 West Mifflin St. This is the block that faces the Overture Center at the top of State Street.

The two buildings on West Mifflin Street, the Schubert and Stark buildings, are city landmarks so developers Pleasant Rowland and W. Jerome Frautschi along with the Block 100 Foundation presented and defended their plan multiple times to the Landmarks Commission.

The Urban Design Commission saw the proposal five times from February 2012 to June 2013, and the Landmarks Commission reviewed designs approximately four times. Additionally, the Plan Commission, the Economic Development committee and the Board of Public Works reviewed the proposal before Common Council finally reviewed the plans.

After gaining approval in June 2012, construction on the project began in November 2012 and is expected to finish in 2014.

But ultimately, Common Council has the final say on any recommendations from the various city commissions that are required to sign off on new developments within the city.

With multiple steps behind the scenes in city hall before developers can break ground, the daunting city approval process can push away outside developers, according to Resnick. But that might not be a bad consequence. If outside developers cannot handle the city approval process, Resnick said, they might not be worth trusting with a major construction project in Madison.

“You also do question if they can’t understand the process do we trust them to build a building?” Resnick said. “It’s a way to weed out developers.”


No, it isn't hyper

Do you think that residents should merely pay taxes so others have money to play with?  Shouldn't the owners have something to say?  It is a sad day when you identify as "hyper" something that really should be normal for a democratic society.  Are you identifying undemocratic governance as somehow the way it should be?