Capitol Punishments: Density vs. the dense

Please just let us have some (yes, bland and imperfect) goddamn housing.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Please just let us have some (yes, bland and imperfect) goddamn housing.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

What do you really want?

I almost threw my computer out the window listening to this week’s Madison Common Council meeting. 

There were a few housing developments on the agenda and one homeowner after the other gave some version of the “I support redevelopment/more housing/etc BUT not THIS” argument. 

One of them was for the project at 3734 Speedway Road, which is currently a closed—CLOSED—convenience store. You’re telling me that you would rather have an empty convenience store than apartments? That apartments are going to sully the character, the ambiance, currently being created by a golf course, cemetery, and empty convenience store?

Oh by the way, the proposal does include a commercial space the developer said could be used as a coffee shop or convenience store. So, somewhat like the building that exists now, but with some housing on top. And that’s a problem?

Those neighbors had even submitted an appeal to kill the project. The council voted it down, so the development will move forward.

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The real kicker that evening was the public comments on the Zion Lutheran Evangelical Church redevelopment. You would have thought by the pleading, outraged, even mildly threatening public comments from neighbors that the building was going to be an ugly atrocity of an eyesore. Then the developer got on and gave a presentation with the renderings of the project and that’s when I was ready to give my laptop flying lessons.

It’s fine. It’s built to look like conjoined two-story townhouses with separate entrances all along the street. There’s a third story but it’s been set back so it’s barely visible from street level. I’m not going to pretend it’s a work of art because the point is, it’s a housing development. It’s not fine art but it’s also not the end of the world. It’s fucking fine. 

The first iteration was a four-story condo project. It could have been an opportunity for families priced out of single-family homes in the area, to at least own a unit and have that stability. But no, the neighbors thought four stories was too much. 

So the developers went back to the drawing board and that’s how we got to the current version. However, because the developers did what the neighbors asked, it is no longer financially feasible for the units to be purchased, and now they would be rentals.

Well, the neighbors got what they asked for, and it still wasn’t good enough. Even after hearing testimony from one of their neighbors who is renting (because buying a house has become completely untenable) say they want to stay in the neighborhood, they want to put down roots, and be part of the community, and this development could make that possible, the homeowners kept stating that no, they didn’t want it. 

Some residents said the key words that gave the game away: height and density. They know there’s a housing shortage and that homeownership has become untenable for families in several income brackets. But they don’t want the solutions within sight of their single-family, suburban-lite enclaves.

The council is also letting this development move forward. But it’s the attitude on display here that’s worrying and frustrating.

Like it or not, density is the best way to ensure Madison’s future. It’s more efficient for municipalities to provide services, it creates robust economic corridors, and it’s more environmentally friendly, more conducive to walking, biking, and public transit. 

Change is hard, but I would argue it’s not as hard as instability. Ask anyone who’s not a homeowner, and they’ll tell you we are tired of our lives being at the mercy of landlords (and yes, developers). No one knows their neighbors because the rent could (and probably will) go up and it’s time to move again. I want to buy quality furniture and hang up some art without worrying about moving in two or three years.

I’m now on the cusp of 40 and want someplace to put down roots, to call home. Why is that too much to ask?

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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