WisBusiness: Panel raps Madison neighborhood associations for development delays
By Brian E. Clark
A developer and an architect on a business panel sharply criticized neighborhood associations in Madison and an approval process that they said can add months and years to the time it takes projects to be built.
“My shallow developer’s opinion of neighborhoods is that they have way too much power,” quipped Aris Gialamas, vice president of the Gialamas Company.
“I’ve always found it interesting how their opinion is going to affect what I do on my property,” said Gialamas, who spoke at an In Business Magazine forum on Tuesday. “I always thought that if they want to see some change, they can finance a project, buy the land, pay the taxes and see their own values increase.”
But that is not happening, he said.
“So we are stuck in a situation where a lot of people are telling us what we can’t do,” he continued. “And that is only going to affect us negatively. We need leadership. Someone needs to stand up, wave their magic wand and make things happen.”
WisBusiness audioHe said Old Sauk Trails Park, which was developed by his family’s company, was almost not built because of neighborhood association opponents who did not like glass-sided buildings and others who said office structures would limit their views of the setting sun.
Paul Cuta, a partner at the Engberg Anderson architectural firm, said he was particularly frustrated by his experience with the Sequoia Library project at the corner of Tokay and South Midvale boulevards in Madison.
Even though he said the development replaced a “terrible, rundown strip mall” that was only half occupied, the neighborhood association “fought it tooth and nail.”
“I’m a champion for process and we collaborate all the time,” he said. “At some point leadership has to say ... we appreciate your input and it will influence as much as possible instead of letting the neighborhood get whatever it wants.”
He said the association members who opposed the Sequoia library project “are the same people who say don’t build out further, don’t drive your SUVs and all this ecology stuff. Fortunately, they like libraries, so we ended up heroes.”
Larry Barton, president of the Strang architect firm, was less harsh but said there needs to be a limit on the amount of time an association can review a project.
“I’ve certainly had my share of good experiences working with neighborhoods and I’ve my share of bad experiences,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is arguing that you should develop in neighborhoods without having association input.”
But he said the process needs to be fair, sequenced properly and come with a time limit.
“If it’s two meetings and then a decision needs to be made, that should be the process,” he said. “It can’t drag on and on and on forever with one request after another. It’s very expensive for developers to hire professionals and come back over and over.
“It’s my assumption that developers would rather be told no ... after six weeks and move on to something else rather than be part of a process that lasts a year only to face a political windstorm and ultimately end up not doing a project,” he said.
“The process can work well,” he said. “The problem is that we’ve allowed it to slip into an uncontrollable, undefinable, no-limit kind of time frame and that is what we need to work on.”
Barton said he knows city of Madison planners are aware of the problem, and are talking about ways to improve the situation and perhaps trimming the number of committees and commissions that projects need to go through for approval.
Brett Frazier, executive director of the Oregon Area Chamber of Commerce and a Milton City Council member, was the fourth member of the panel, which was moderated by In Business publisher Jody Glynn Patrick. Frazier said he has attended numerous local and country meetings only to hear the same debate over and over.
“My advice to someone running for office is ‘don’t run if you don’t want to make a decision,’” he said. “There is time to listen, gather information and then a time to decide. You owe to people to make a decision, right or wrong.”
In Oregon, where he said there are several strong neighborhood associations, he said he helps businesses navigate the governmental process to get projects built.
And he was less critical of neighborhood associations.
“They are made up of people,” he said. “They want what is good for their families and their homes and their (property) values. They can get all kinds of wild ideas about what a developer is trying to do, so I try to bring them in and make them part of the process.”
He said Oregon has traditionally had a reputation for not being able to make a decision about developments.
“But over the past year-and-one-half, that has changed,” he said.
“Now things can happen like that,” he added, snapping his fingers. “People just have to be comfortable saying ‘this is my decision to make and I’m OK making it.'”
In other comments, panelists discussed their visions for improving Madison, emphasizing the need to improve the East Washington Avenue and South Park Street corridors leading into the core of the city.