After months of neighborhood feedback, a proposal for a major mixed-use development on the 700 block of East Johnson Street has shrunk significantly from original plans. But neighbors still oppose the project, which they say is too big and disrupts the character of the area.
“We’ve already seen them work to make this proposal fit in the neighborhood, so you really have to give them credit for that,” said Patty Prime, president of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association. “But it overall wasn’t enough for us.”
Chris Houden is the developer of the mixed-use apartment project, which would span 11 lots from 717 to 753 E. Johnson St.
Eight of the existing houses would be renovated, with one moved to a different area of the property and three moved to lots on East Gorham Street and potentially East Dayton Street. The remaining five houses on the property would be renovated and rented out as apartments.
Three houses would be demolished, and in place of the demolished and moved buildings, Houden would build two three-story buildings, providing 58 apartments. Those new buildings would have first-floor retail space and underground parking, and would provide a mix of studio, one, two and three-bedroom units.
The TLNA says the proposal has improved since it was first introduced. It originally planned to demolish eight houses and build three new structures, but the developer shifted course as it became clear the neighborhood wanted to preserve the homes, said Patrick Heck, TLNA council member.
But that wasn't enough to pacify the neighborhood. The TLNA voted 10-4 to oppose the proposal and a “strong majority” of the neighborhood steering committee opposed it as well, according to a TLNA letter.
The neighborhood association submitted a letter to the city listing its concerns, including the lack of affordable housing in the development and the size of the buildings.
“I would say the scale is probably the biggest problem,” Heck said. “That means a major disruption to the fabric of the neighborhood, rather than small-scale disruptions.”
Prime said the neighborhood doesn’t want to encourage developers to buy up large tracts of land and redevelop them, and would rather support the existing character of the block. People like living in the neighborhood because it has an older feel, she said, with spaces between houses and porches.
The neighborhood has seen a resurgence in recent years, with several restaurants and small businesses taking over storefronts between the 700 and 900 blocks.
Even though more homes are being saved in the current iteration of Houden's proposal, some neighbors aren’t thrilled about relocating houses off-site, arguing they will “lose their context” in the move, Heck said.
The neighborhood isn’t universally opposed to large developments, Heck and Prime said. It has approved almost 1,000 new apartments on East Washington Avenue, Heck said, with developments like The Galaxie, The Constellation and Veritas Village.
But neighbors want “to maintain the feel and character of our neighborhood as much as we can as you move towards the lake,” Prime said, indicating the two- and-three-story houses that dominate blocks between East Mifflin and Lake Mendota.
And while the neighborhood plan calls for more businesses on the 700 block of East Johnson, it was aiming for “a more organic conversion” to mixed-use than the current proposal puts forward, Heck said.
“The idea was to mimic or follow the kind of funky pattern of how businesses developed on adjacent blocks, rather than wholesale tear-downs to build larger structures,” Heck said.
He pointed to the Renaissance Property Group development now under construction, also on the 700 block of East Johnson. That project will create a mixed-use development with 60 apartments and first-floor commercial space.
“That one took a lot of time and work for the neighborhood to get to the point of supporting it, but what came out of the process was a much improved project,” he wrote in an email.
In its letter to the city, the neighborhood association outlined steps it would like the developer to take if the proposal moves forward, including reducing the footprint of the new buildings, guaranteeing that 10 percent of the apartments will be affordable housing and rethinking the “contemporary style” of the buildings.
Melissa Huggins, a consultant for the project who works at Urban Assets of Madison, said the developer has already agreed to some of the listed conditions in the letter like placing utility wiring underground. She said the developer is considering writing a letter of intent to provide some affordable housing. But for the most part, the plans are wrapped up until the developer receives feedback from the Plan Commission and City Council, she said.
“At this point we’ve accommodated a lot and worked really hard to come to a solution with the neighborhood,” she said. “I think we’re going to go forward with the project as proposed.”
The project is slated to appear before the city’s Plan Commission in February, with hopes to break ground in April 2018.