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City opens up living space in downtown

Staff Written News

By Tia Lynn Ivey

Managing Editor 

As storefronts dwindle, more downtown living opportunities may soon be coming to Madison. The Madison Mayor and City Council unanimously passed a text amendment designed to protect Madison’s commercial retail stores and historic buildings while allowing residential units to be developed inside those buildings. 

The new text amendment reduces the minimum size requirements for one-bedroom loft units down to 500 square feet and allows residential use of a portion of ground level commercial spaces in Madison’s Downtown Commercial District. 

Joe Smith, an architect who filed for the text amendment, explained the reasoning behind it. 

“Our experience in residential adaptive reuse in Madison and other cities and town has show us that there is a demand for smaller residential units in the marketplace. In the rental market, single-occupant dwelling units are in higher demand than larger apartments with multiple bedrooms, and are occupied at a higher rate than larger units,” explained Smith. “Madison is currently undersupplied with housing options for individuals.” 

According to Smith, Madison’s stock of retail businesses are ideal candidates for loft units and will provide affordable living options in the downtown area. 

“Because of their space efficiency, smaller apartments’ rents are affordable for the individual. Additionally, the smaller proposed unit size parallels the configuration of much of the existing second floor office space in Madison’s downtown area. These office suites tended to be modest in size and they readily convert to residential units of the same size without requiring extensive construction.”

Smith sees this new allowance as a way to compensate for “dwindling retail uses in street level commercial spaces in downtown Madison.”

“This is a factor of rental rates as well as the willingness of professional tenants to pay higher rents for spaces,” said Smith. We feel that a driving factor in this phenomenon is the fact that many commercial spaces are simply too large for what is necessary to operate a modern retail business.” 

According to Madison City Staff, the text amendment aims to increase the flexibility of loft location in the Downtown Commercial District (C1) by allowing them on ground level floors. 

The new text amendment will allow for residential units to be developed inside commercial retail buildings in the Downtown Commercial District provided certain criteria is met. The primary use of the building must remain commercial, at least 51 percent of the gross square footage and the non-residential occupancy must be a minimum of 1600 square feet.

The council unanimously passed the plan with restrictions proposed by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. 

Before voting in favor of the text amendment, Councilman Eric Joyce expressed concerns about the proposal. 

“I see here in the staff report that this text amendment is not inconsistent with the Downtown Commercial District, but is it compatible?” asked Joyce. “Are we undermining our historic protection of the character of the downtown with this proposal?”

Joyce was persuaded in the end. Councilwoman Chris Hodges thought the text amendment would help property owners. 

“This can take some burden off property owners,” said Hodges. “Empty storefronts to rental units will make it more affordable and generate more income to keep these historic properties intact.”

The text amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance now allows a “dwelling unit containing one room or suite of rooms, with a kitchen and bath, used as an individual dwelling unit within a building where the principal use is non-residential.”

The text amendment also stipulates that entrances to residential units cannot be on the front facade of the building. 

“Provided all requirements of this section are met, one bedroom lofts may be 500-714 sq. ft (micro-lofts) provided these units occupy no more than 25 percent of the gross square footage of the floor on which they are located in an existing property where a parking space per said unit is provided on the property or on an adjacent property,” said the city staff report.”

A dwelling unit containing one (1) room or suite of rooms, with a kitchen and bath, used as an individual dwelling unit within a building where the principal use is non-residential. CREATE Section 700.2, Table 12. Note 11. (11) In the Downtown Commercial District (C-1), residential use of a building is permitted provided that: a) the principal use of the building is non-residential, evidenced by a non- residential occupancy of a minimum of 51 percent of the gross square footage of the building; and, b) the non-residential occupancy is a minimum of 1600 sq. ft., occupies the full width of building’s ground floor on the façade; and c) the residential occupancy shall utilize a primary access other than the façade (i.e. secondary or rear elevation), d) provided all requirements of this section are met, one bedroom lofts may be 500-714 sq. ft (micro-lofts)provided these units occupy no more than 25 percent of the gross square footage of the floor on which they are located in an existing property where a parking space per said unit is provided on the property or on an adjacent property. 

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