The April 26 Platteville Common Council meeting in front of a packed house was a great object lesson in how government works, correctly and, well, not.
Most of those attending were in support of the first approval needed for the St. Augustine University Parish project (see page 1). The council will decide later on the project’s specifics and a developer’s agreement for what might as well be called the “Church Block,” in keeping with the Library Block and the “Pizza Block.”
I continue to be amazed, though by now I probably shouldn’t be, at the disregard and disrespect for property rights in this city, both in reaction to the St. Augustine project and another subject that came up, first reported by your favorite weekly newspaper last month.
Much of the opposition to the St. Augustine project centered around parking, which is understandable. Those who claim the city is creating a precedent by allowing less on-site parking than required by R-3 zoning (which is superseded by the Planned Unit Development designation) are about five years too late, though, given that, you will notice, Rountree Commons has about 10 percent of the parking spots that would be required for an R-3-zoned project.
The Plan Commission voted against a Planned Unit Development. The council decided otherwise, because, among other things, if the development achieved tax-exempt status (the project’s owners are organized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit), guess what happens to city property tax payments. A PUD can include a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, which means the city gets money regardless of whether the project is declared property tax-exempt or not.
Here is what is less understandable about opposition to the project: One alderman and one speaker opposing the St. Augustine project stated that the project should have one floor removed from it. Neither of those people is known to have any financial stake in the project. (There also was the suggestion to build it at the former St. Mary’s School site, which is nowhere near the size of the St. Augustine’s block.) It’s as if no one believes the developers might have planned housing for 144 based on their financial calculations that they need that many residents for the project to generate enough revenue (including to pay for underground parking) to support Cardinal Newman Center programs, which, based on what the developers are saying, is the entire point of the development. When you say (as they did) that you support the project and then, well, oppose the project’s basic parameters, you don’t support the project, do you?
One must admire the enthusiasm of the Newman Center students (who are unlikely to end up committing what I call Stupid Student Tricks), even if one, who said he was a marketing student, displayed some dubious economics. The student claimed the St. Augustine rents would bring up rents landlords could charge, I guess under the theory that the new housing would be the market’s high-end leader. More likely is that increasing the supply of housing more than the number of potential renters would lead to more vacancies and bring down rents. (One person said he counted 35 For Rent signs in some part of the city.) That, however, is the landlord’s problem, not the city council’s.
I found clever the developer’s use of the city’s comprehensive plan and ways the project matches its goals in such areas as higher density near campus, taller buildings, shared parking by more than one user, and on-site management. I wonder how many people remember the Common Council’s deliberations about the comprehensive plan (which originally was part of state-mandated Smart Growth). The most recent version you can find, all 184 pages of it, can be read at http://platteville.org/?post=3918. You may find a lot of it good in theory but perhaps not in practice (for instance, density, given few people I know want to live next to 100-plus apartment units).
Apparently telling other people what they should do with the property they paid for and pay taxes on is a Platteville tradition. That now extends to temporary signs, given the crackdown, reported in this newspaper, on temporary signs in front of businesses and, as you’ll read on page 9A, at least one church. (One hopes the complaint over the church sign was over its location and not its content. Complaints about the latter not only infringe on freedom of religion but are rather ridiculous given that the broad variety of area churches, as listed on page 8A this week, should cover nearly everyone’s views of Christianity, and other religious houses can be found as well.)
The one piece of good news about Sign Wars is that city staff is going to review the ordinance, which apparently has been enforced only when the city is getting complaints. (Police obviously enforce speed and traffic laws regardless of whether anyone complains about others’ driving.) There seems to be a lot of that in Platteville, which makes one wonder why ordinances the city won’t enforce absent complaints exist in the first place.