The Madison Plan Commission on Thursday discussed an update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan to increase building height limits and allow for the construction of more housing units.
As part of the Plan Commission’s interim update to the Comprehensive Plan — created in 2018 to outline recommendations for future decisions and investments made by the city — the commission discussed changes to the Generalized Future Land Use Map (GFLU), which categorizes each parcel of land according to building use and size restrictions.
The commission discussed proposals from Common Council members to increase the height limits throughout the city as part of efforts to facilitate more housing construction amid Madison’s housing shortage.
Many residential areas in Madison are currently designated low or medium density, which strictly limits the number of stories that can be built. Affordable housing advocates in response pushed for increased building height limits to accommodate more housing.
The commission received 81 proposed amendments from the public prior to Thursday’s meeting, most of which called for upgraded density in their neighborhoods.
The Common Council in March made a significant move toward this goal by passing legislation that allows developers to add stories to their buildings if at least half of the additional space is used for affordable housing.
However, District 8 Ald. MGR Govindarajan said this step won’t make a great difference unless the council changes zoning in the area around the Capitol from medium to high residential density on the GFLU map.
“The higher density residential we have around campus, the more units we can build together and more people we can house,” Govindarajan said.
Govindarajan, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student and the representative for most of the area surrounding campus, responded to students’ calls for more housing by requesting the maximum amount of building height increases for every land parcel in District 8 not owned by UW-Madison.
“I am committed to building as much housing as possible, and to do that, it requires us to get rid of low-level height restrictions,” he said.
Govindarajan said much of the support for increasing the city’s housing supply comes from students.
Govindarajan and District 2 Ald. Juliana Bennett surveyed around 1,700 UW-Madison students in July about their experiences searching for housing off campus. Students overwhelmingly expressed frustration with the affordability of Madison’s housing market and many wanted to see more housing built in the city, Govindarajan said.
”That's a level of engagement that we have not seen in the city in a very long time,” he said.
Some Madison residents expressed similar sentiments during the Thursday meeting, claiming that the growing Madison population cannot be accommodated under current restrictions on housing development.
“If we continue to limit what can be built on most of the land in Madison, we will only continue the creep of high rises into neighborhoods or the exodus of home buyers into neighboring cities,” said resident Josh Olson.
Ronald Trachtenberg, a local property owner, said upgrading the city’s density levels “is extremely important if we are to maintain a buyable, diverse city.”
But other residents voiced concern that the discussed changes could displace current residents living in already-existing cheaper housing.
“In time, zoning changes and cognizant redevelopment can threaten the residents of these areas with displacement and homelessness,” said resident Robert Klebba.
The Plan Commission will take public comments into account as it looks to finalize the update to the Comprehensive Plan later this year.
The plan as a whole will not be reviewed again until 2028, making this interim update crucial in addressing the many concerns that Madison residents have concerning the current zoning of the city, according to Govindarajan.
Students and Madison community members can submit comments regarding height restrictions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 3:38 p.m. on Sept. 15, 2023 to clarify the context of speakers' comments at the Plan Commission meeting.