Anthony Gray showed the full range of human emotions as he stood at the podium inside of Middleton City Hall on Tuesday night. He pled with people. He yelled at them. He appealed to them. He rebuked them. Eventually, he flat out asked for someone to please just help him.
In the end, though, the Middleton Common Council voted 4-4, with Mayor Gurdip Brar casting the tie-breaking vote, to reject Gray’s proposal for affordable housing on University Avenue.
The image of Gray, a lone black figure in a sea of verbally and visibly disapproving white residents, was jarring. The optics could not be overstated. At least 40 residents filled the room to block development attempts from Anthony Gray to bring a four-story affordable housing building to their community. Gray, who is one of the only black real estate developers in Dane County, sat aghast during much of the proceeding.
One by one they came to the podium to say that Gray’s proposed housing development would be unwelcome in their community.
“The proposal is out of touch with realities,” resident Nile Ostenso said. “As the area is not zoned for such an intrusive structure physically or culturally.”
It wasn’t clear what he meant by “culturally intrusive.” Or maybe it was.
Resident Susan Riesch followed up by talking about the darkness the size of the project would bring to such a light neighborhood.
“They [four-story buildings like Gray’s proposal] shut out the natural light and the sky,” Riesch said. “And the accompanying noise and light pollution, it’s just intolerable……I think we can do better….I just don’t think it makes the city more attractive.”
Sarah Cords, who has been very vocal in her opposition for the project, aimed most of her shots at the Middleton Common Council.
“Prove to your citizens that even though the State of Wisconsin has taken away our right to protest and have a super majority vote, prove to us that local government still exists to safeguard our rights,” she said. “This shouldn’t be you versus us and it didn’t have to be you versus us.”
On and on it went. It’ll cause safety concerns. Traffic will be heavy. The proposal is plainly wrong and must be turned down. Anthony Gray is greedy. This will damage property values. It won’t make the city attractive.
Van Nutt, of the Middleton Chamber of Commerce, supported the project and said that this project is about more than just a few residents. He said the Chamber looks at projects that will benefit the community as a whole and said that Gray’s will.
City Administrator Mike Davis said that the City of Middleton is in need of affordable developments like Gray’s.
Anthony Gray, who is also CEO of the Institute for Global Ethics, is seeking to build a four-story apartment building that consists of 39 living units that would serve as affordable housing on three parcels located at 6814, 6818 and 6824 University Ave, at the corner of University Avenue and Park Street in Middleton. The building would include 30 one-bedroom units, three two-bedroom units and six studio apartments as well as underground parking.
The project, which will be a building called “The Addison,” is part of workforce development work that Gray has been trying to accomplish. He wants to give people who may not normally be able to afford to live in Middleton the chance to have access to better schools and neighborhoods than what they have previously experienced. Gray’s philosophy is that a community like Middleton should be accessible to everyone, and not just those from privilege.
“We want people who haven’t had the luxury of being fourth generation Middleton (residents) to be able to live here,” Gray told the Middleton Common Council on Tuesday night. “Everyone deserves the same rights you enjoy. How do we make sure there’s an opportunity for people not born in this city to enjoy its beauty?”
The audience bristled audibly as Gray spoke, setting up an uncomfortable scene as Gray stood before the Common Council answering questions as the only black face in the room while all-white residents of the community snickered, sighed, muttered under their breath and furiously shook their heads in disapproval at his words.
The prospect of 30 one-bedroom units being placed into the community has clearly riled up some of the residents. The “type” of families that would live in a one-bedroom would most likely be much more diverse than the neighbors some around the city are used to having. The project would focus on providing workforce housing, meaning it would provide affordable housing to employees close to where they work.
City Administrator Mike Davis told the Council and residents that many city staff currently aren’t able to afford to live in Middleton, even though they work there. He said starter homes go for about $400,000.
“And when we talk about creating 20 percent of the unit with workforce housing, that’s what gets them riled up,” Anthony Gray told Madison365. “They hear workforce housing and they think Section 8, which it’s not. They think Black and Brown residents. They talk about destroying property values when every expert says it will raise property values.”
Indeed, Gray has spent over $100,000 hiring experts to contest some of the notions that residents have had about problems his project would bring to their neighborhoods. He has had traffic experts say it won’t cause traffic problems, had DNR environmental reviews, shadow studies, soil boring and analysis. All of the reviews from all of the experts have led them to say his is a good project and that there would be no issues.
Gray provided Madison365 with over 25 pages worth of information about these issues and the steps he has taken to address them.
For The Addison to come to fruition, Gray needed to have the Middleton Common Council vote to rezone the area around the property. One way the community sought to prevent Gray from moving on his project was to eliminate his ability to build a four-story building on the site.
On May 1, 2018, the Council had referred the matter back to the Plan Commission to see if The Addison could be reduced to becoming a three-story building. The current zoning requirement is that a building at that location be three stories or 35 feet (whichever is less).
However, in order to make things work financially and afford the project, Gray stated that it would need to be four stories.
As a result, they were requesting that the zoning be changed to a Planned Development District (PDD) which is more flexible zoning that would allow it to be four stories and allow the development team some leeway in the design of the building.
If the city did not approve a rezoning to PDD, the project would have to adhere to the current three-story zoning stipulations and Gray would most likely have to sell the property.
And so it was that the Middleton Common Council took up the issue. Following hours of what some in attendance called xenophobic, not-in-my-backyard heckling and blatant, open, racial dog-whistling, the Council was ready to vote on the rezoning issue so that Anthony Gray could move ahead with plans to bring affordable housing to Wisconsin’s best place to live.
But angry citizens told the Council that the mere consideration of The Addison Project meant the Council did not care about the residents they serve. Members of the Middleton community said in no uncertain terms that the Council was betraying their trust by allowing this “type” of thing to enter the Middleton community and that this was something they would remember come election time.
Some, like Alder Howard Teal of District 5, stood by his principles of supporting progress and the idea that the project would be good for the community.
Others, however, seemed swayed by the outpouring of disapproval from the community. Most notable in this was District 2 Alder Robert Burck who insisted on making an amendment to the proposed rezoning vote by adding in a stipulation that Gray’s building had to remain at 35 feet or three stories, despite the fact that the entire point of the rezoning vote was to eliminate such restrictions.
Council President Susan West said on record during the meeting that if this project doesn’t go through, she presumed Gray would sell the property.
“We could have a big long nursing home. I see that as a particular use,” West said describing what could go on the lot instead of Gray’s project.
Over the course of a bizarre hour, Alder Burck went on amending his proposed amendment approximately eight times.
Madison365 has covered countless City Council meetings across Madison, Sun Prairie, Fitchburg and Middleton. Never, in this reporter’s experience, has an Alder been able to introduce and reintroduce and continually amend a proposal without a vote on any proposed amendment.
Eventually Mark Opitz, the city of Middleton’s zoning administrator, reminded City Attorney Lawrence Bechler that none of the amendments had been voted on. Opitz then went on to tell the council and the city attorney that they should “assume” city clerk Lorie was detailing those as “friendly amendments” even though none of them had been initially presented as friendly amendments.
The City Attorney then said these would retroactively be considered “friendly amendments.” Eventually, Mayor Gurdip insisted that a vote be had.
The Council reached a 4-4 split among Alders on the issue of forcing Gray’s proposed building be restricted to three stories (or 35 feet). Mayor Gurdip cast the deciding vote in favor of making the building adhere to being three stories, effectively killing the project. The Council did vote 6-2 to change the zoning to PDD, but that was rendered irrelevant by taking away an entire floor of Gray’s project.
Outside of the Council chamber, Middleton residents clapped and hugged. “We stick up for each other,” one resident was overheard saying to another.
But Anthony Gray, who was sticking up for people’s right to enjoy the wonderful schools and safe neighborhoods Middleton provides, was at a loss for words.
Alder Burck had spent so much time amending his amendment that Gray actually got lost in all the back-and-forth and needed a moment to even process what had just happened.
Gray told Madison365 that he didn’t know what he would do now. He said he will contact his architect and see what they can do with the three stories or 35 feet they’ve now been reduced to. Gray did not seem optimistic that it would work financially.
Gray said he will take some time and decide what to do with the property. Perhaps he will now be forced to sell and end the dream that Black and Brown families who need affordable housing could participate in the luxuries Middleton provides.
As for the Middleton residents, perhaps they will get “something nice” like a nursing home instead of low-income working families living there.
Either way, they won’t have to worry about the height of the building blocking out hours of sunlight or casting a shadow across their neighborhoods.
Perhaps there never was going to be a shadow cast from the building’s size. Maybe that was just Middleton’s way of saying it’s getting too dark in their charming neighborhoods.