Among The New Urbanists

I was one of the many anonymous volunteers who helped plan the Congress for the New Urbanism’s national conference  in Madison in early June. I served on the tours committee, which met for more than a year, and helped plan tours of the downtown’s full-block developments (Capitol West and Block 89) and of the great planner John Nolen’s handiwork in Madison. My old paper Isthmus asked me to write about my impressions of the conference.

You can read them here. Among other things, I was reminded of how Madison really doesn’t want to become a big city:

Madison has always been conflicted by density. It’s honored in theory as a boon to mass transit and to sophisticated urban living, but often opposed in practice when a developer wants to put up a five-story condo down the street.

This ambivalence is understandable. Neighborhood scale is important (but not all-important), and some oversized designs are wretched. But as  [author Edward] Glaeser said in an interview, while neighbors always deserve a say in the deliberations, they shouldn’t have a veto.

“Every time you say ‘no’ to a new development, you’re saying ‘no’ to a family that wants to move into the neighborhood,” he said. “Every person in greater Madison who wants to buy is being impacted by a community that wants to shut things down.”

The density issue is bubbling up beneath the new downtown plan and in the new zoning map still in the drafting stage. A quick survey: The business group Downtown Madison Inc. has criticized the plan for failing to promote greater density in areas like Mifflin Street.

Dennis Lynch, a development consultant, has circulated a critical memo (PDF) arguing that the city is creating a “dead zone” by capping most development at five stories, the point at which he says construction costs shoot up. Steve Cover, the city’s new planning chief, is unfazed, responding that other developers don’t share Lynch’s views and that the five-story limit is not absolute.

This is important stuff because the new downtown plan and zoning map will set the city’s DNA for the next 25 years. As Glaeser sees it, change is a constant in urban life. Cities that don’t reinvent themselves fall into decay and fade away. With government as Madison’s signature industry in decline, Glaeser’s warning gives pause.

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