Zoning change near Madison’s Bus Rapid Transit route has community split

MADISON, Wis. — A city-led zoning proposal up for review Tuesday night by the Madison Common Council is getting some mixed reviews. One camp thinks it’s a way to invest in the city’s future and another worries it will jeopardize its historic past.

It’s called Transit Oriented Development, and it’s meant to serve as one solution to Madison’s housing problem that affects thousands of properties along the Bus Rapid Transit route.

The TOD proposal would put a zoning overlay on land within a quarter of a mile of corridors that see transit service at least every 15 minutes. City Planning Director Heather Stouder said the plan would add to the rules already in place in existing districts so the implications are not a one size fits all approach.

“Basically in a nutshell, it adds a boost to what can be done related to housing,” she said.

For example, an area zoned for single-family homes could allow for duplex expansions, but higher-density districts could go from having five-story limits to eight.

City leaders project a population increase in Madison of roughly 100,000 people over the next 30 years, so Stouder said the proposal is a way to make the most of the limited space on the Isthmus.

With that data in mind, District 3 Alder Erik Paulson wants to see the proposal go forward, calling it a win-win because he also sees it as a way to maximize the investments already made to the transit system.

Stouder agrees and also thinks it’s a good way to get fewer cars on Madison roads, which is not only good for the environment but could also mean using less land for parking.

“The more and more households that can find great choices near transit, the more likely it is that transit can become a good option for getting around,” she said.

District 11 Alder Bill Tishler said he understands the pressure for more housing and fully supports BRT but he thinks with the city’s TOD zoning overlay proposal they’re taking on too much too fast.

“We’re just trying to do two things at the same time,” he said “I think the focus should be on the bus rapid transit, getting that going and then the density will follow.”

Tishler said the proposal takes too broad of an approach, suggesting the city consider the zoning overlay fall in relation to bus stops instead of bus routes. However, his biggest concerns began when some of the city’s historic districts were added to the zoning proposal in December 2022 by the Transportation and Policy Board.

“I really don’t see adding historic districts and maybe putting in a couple of additional duplexes is really going to solve the immediate housing crisis that we have,” he said.

Earlier that year in May city leaders put on a series of community meetings about TOD which Stouder said were fairly well attended. Following the addition of historic districts Tishler said more time is needed for public input otherwise it’s like the city taking over.

For Stouder, it’s just a matter of providing more options and while the changes can be meaningful to some in those neighborhoods the magnitude of what’ll be allowed is relatively small. She looked to the city’s decision to make accessory dwellings allowable in 2013 which to date has only led to around 20 approvals.

“We see it as more of an opportunity that can be considered, we don’t expect the city to change overnight or even within 5, 10 years after this,” she said.

Should the TOD zoning overlay proposal move forward, it would affect anywhere from 14% to 16% of Madison land, depending on whether or not historic districts are included. That land makes up more than 30% of the city’s dwelling units which house about 80,000 residents.

City leaders said so far the community feedback has been pretty evenly split so Tuesday’s Common Council meeting could go either way.