By Mike Ivey, The Capital Times, January 22, 2014
New revised plans for the long-vacant Union Corners site at East Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street are getting an early thumbs down from some east-side residents.
Issues being raised include the amount of surface parking for the UW Health clinic that will anchor the project, the size of the apartment buildings shown in the drawings and the lack of any significant green space.
“My basic concern is why are the plans we are seeing now so dramatically different than what was first presented?” says Ken Fitzsimmons, who lives directly behind the site on Farwell Street.
The plans from Gorman & Co., scheduled for an informational presentation before the city Urban Design Commission Wednesday, show some changes from those first presented in 2012 when Gorman was selected as the developer for the 11-acre site.
New plans feature a pair of four-story apartment buildings at the rear of the site where it abuts the neighborhood. Initial plans showed the development stepping back in scale, with the biggest buildings along East Washington Avenue and smaller buildings toward the back.
“I realize it’s still early in the process, but this is a big deal to us and we want to know what is going on,” says Fitzsimmons, education director at Madison Music Foundry and a member of the popular local band, The Kissers.
The city purchased the property out of foreclosure in 2010 and is selling it to Gorman for $1 in lieu of any tax incremental financing assistance. Developers are hoping to begin construction on a $20 million, 2-story, 60,000 square foot clinic building in late summer, with UW Health looking to move in during the summer of 2015.
The developers have cautioned the plans could change with market conditions, especially if the demand for owner-occupied condominiums or townhomes picks up. Development would take place in phases over several years.
But comments posted on the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara (SASY) Facebook page are showing some major discontent. The initial proposal from Gorman — which played up amenities like a new library, small scale shopping and public spaces — was generally supported by the neighborhood during a series of earlier meetings.
Dan Melton writes that he supported the 2012 plans but is worried the developers are shifting direction in order to maximize return at the expense of existing residents.
“If Gorman & Co. went back, crunched the numbers, decided they couldn’t make a profit with the earlier 2012 site plan, then they should have leveled with us, presented the neighbors with options — and heard which of the potential site plan changes had support,” writes Melton.
District 6 Ald. Marsha Rummel has been monitoring the neighborhood comments and has passed them along to the developers. She is urging residents to attend the UDC meeting, which is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. in Room LL110 of the Madison Municipal Building.
“I really appreciate the comments and you can be sure I will represent the collective disappointment that has been expressed here,” she writes in a SASY Facebook post.
Gorman spokesman Joe Schwenker declined to offer any additional comments pending the discuss at the UDC meeting.
Drew Hanson, who lives a block from the site on Milwaukee Street, says his family uses the site now as an ice skating rink and would prefer to see it developed in a way that enhances the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood. He takes issue with claims the property is one of the bigger eyesores in the city.
“The plan is supposed to include interesting community space, a commons, community gardens, pedestrian friendliness and more for the neighborhood to get excited about,” he writes in an email to the city. “Gorman’s UW clinic renderings that appeared this week in the CapTimes are none of these things.”
Over the past decade, Union Corners went from one of the most promising development projects in Madison history to one of its more visible disappointments.
In 2003 before the housing bust, developer Todd McGrath had plans to turn the former Rayovac battery plant and a vacant grocery store site into a mix of housing, retail and open space. The $70 million project was widely hailed as a game changer that would help spur development along the blighted East Washington Avenue corridor.
When the recession hit, however, McGrath ended up losing the property in a voluntary foreclosure. The city of Madison bought the land from M&I Bank for $3.57 million in 2010, with the expectation it could eventually find a private developer to take over the site once the economy improved.
The city solicited proposals for the site and chose Gorman after other developers dropped out. In July 2013, the city sold the property to Gorman for $1 instead of making a TIF loan to the developer.
Madison aims to recoup its estimated $6 million in land and infrastructure costs through new property taxes generated by the development.