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Madison church project draws shades of opposition

LZ Ventures is aiming to raze the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to make way for a 12-story apartment complex. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

One high-rise, student-housing building on the block offers enough shade for Luther Memorial Church in Madison.

The church, about three years ago, struck a deal with Madison developer LZ Ventures, which built the 14-story Grand Central Apartments on West Johnson Street immediately to the south of the church on University Avenue. In the deal, LZ paid Luther Memorial about $1.5 million and gave the church 25 underground parking spaces in exchange for a parking lot, said Bill White, an attorney for Madison-based Michael Best & Friedrich LLP who is representing LZ.

Now, LZ has teamed up with St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center, which is next door to Luther Memorial, to build a 12-story, 90-apartment student housing building on the other side of St. Francis. Both churches are on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

But representatives from Luther Memorial, which has no role in the St. Francis deal, are fighting the project every step of the way. LZ wants to complete the project by fall 2012.

I think they don’t see the same benefits of this project as they saw from the first one,” said Kevin Delorey, an attorney for Milwaukee-based Quarles & Brady LLP who is representing St. Francis. “So, consequently, they are finding their self-interest in opposing this project. It seems to be sort of, ‘It’s OK in our backyard, but not in our side yard.'”

Luther Memorial members have argued the new development would block sunlight, create congestion and even lead to increased crime in the area. So far, their arguments have been successful.

The city’s Plan Commission on July 11 voted to reject the St. Francis project. At that meeting, the Rev. Brad Pohlman, associate pastor at Luther Memorial, cited his congregation’s concerns.

“We have very little to gain in this project and everything to lose,” he said. “The shadowing, the noise, the parking, the vandalism. The lighting is one major piece of that, but not the only one.”

Pohlman did not immediately return repeated calls for comment Friday.

Harvey Temkin, an attorney for Reinhart, Boerner, Van Deuren SC in Madison, is representing Luther Memorial but said he couldn’t speak on behalf of the congregation because there were too many different viewpoints.

St. Francis, Delorey said, is sticking with its viewpoint that the project deserves approval.

“We haven’t thrown in the towel by any means,” he said. “We’re thinking our way through with LZ as to what the best next steps are. I can’t really say we’ve come to a conclusion, but we certainly haven’t abandoned the idea of developing the site.”

LZ isn’t ready to give up either. White said the developer intended to appeal the Plan Commission’s ruling.

“We thought we would get approved, to be honest with you,” he said. “The staff report was extremely positive.”

But the effect on Luther Memorial almost certainly would be negative, said Joyce Bisbee, a member of Luther Memorial.

“Luther Memorial is not a neighborhood church; it’s a destination church,” she said. “More congestion in that area will cause problems for the church in terms of membership. We don’t think new members would be attracted. And if we can’t get new members into the church, the church can suffer economically and go into decline.”

Still, White said, it’s hard for project proponents to ignore that Luther Memorial didn’t put up a fight when the congregation benefited from the Grand Central project.

Congregation members have changed their opinions about Grand Central since the project was completed, Bisbee said.

“We didn’t love it, but we didn’t oppose it,” she said. “The Grand Central building has provided shadow and blocked sunshine on the west side, so our day care center playground doesn’t get sun anymore.

“We’ve become very sensitive to sunshine.”

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