178-unit apartment, townhome project on Traceway Drive gets rezone with majority support from Fitchburg council – Fitchburg star

Nearly all alders were on board with a development plan that would take open space just west of North Fish Hatchery Road and infill it with close to 180 apartment units.

There was one exception, namely from Ald. Jay Allen (D-3), who formerly lived adjacent to the open area being eyed for redevelopment, who felt that the city and landowner, Madison-based commercial real estate managers E.J. Plesko, should have done more planning with the larger neighborhood in mind. 

During the Tuesday, Feb. 22, Common Council meeting, alders voted 7-1 to approve a rezone for the property that would allow developers Fitchburg Commercial Properties, LLC and E.J. Plesko and Associates to continue forward in the development process, with Allen as the only vote against. The same proposal narrowly received a recommendation from the Plan Commission the week earlier, as mayor Aaron Richardson and commissioners Steven Heller and Ed Kinney advocated for more ownership opportunities in the area.

The 5.3-acre parcel land – which sits just to the west of the strip mall that contains Dollar Tree and La Concha – is currently undeveloped outside of a shed on the property, and the $33.3 million apartment complex would be adjacent to the city’s The Hub project, a two-phase community park and community center development on either side of Traceway Drive. 

Based on preliminary designs, the project would house 16 studio units, 77 one-bedrooms, 70 two-bedrooms and 15 three-bedrooms, with townhomes on the first floor with access doors facing the street. The development is designed to include 273 parking spaces, with 180 of those being underground, and has a rooftop plaza.

The project land is in the city’s tax-increment district No. 10 and is outlined in the 2019 North Fish Hatchery Road Visioning and Implementation document as an area that should be an “Urban-Commercial Frontage” that would include new residential and mixed use developments at varying levels of income.

E.J. Plesko vice president and director of development David Gevers told alders that the company had purchased the land, which previously held five apartment buildings that have since been demolished, out of foreclosure in 2005. The company also owns nearby apartment complexes The Highline senior apartments, The Pines and Fairways and rents to approximately 10% of the city’s residents.

Gevers said the proposed apartment complex is expected to have market-rate rents, as the company is trying to infuse a variety of income levels into the neighborhood, which traditionally has featured majority low-income housing.

“Since that time, we’ve invested a lot of energy and resources and dollars into fixing up the neighborhood, fixing up the property,” he said. “We see this next project as really the next step for this neighborhood. We care deeply about this neighborhood and our residents … we think it’s a good example of an urban infill in a neighborhood that needs the investment.”

Allen said that while he didn’t dislike the project, he instead wished the Fish Hatchery Road corridor had done more comprehensive planning for the entire area, considering how much land E.J. Plesko owns in the neighborhood. He acknowledged that Fish Hatchery Road has had visioning plans and studies completed twice in the past two decades – with the most recent one outlining the parcel as one ripe for redevelopment – but would like to see a plan more robust that would also reimagine other areas that are currently occupied by apartment buildings.

“The reality is that Fish Hatchery Road’s going to change, and a lot of the things that are there right now are not going to be there forever,” he said. “I prefer to see things done with a better conceptual plan for what the future might be. When you put a building like this right where it’s going to be located, it’s fine, except that it limits your potential for redevelopment projects on adjacent properties.”

Allen’s concerns for more robust neighborhood planning did not come up later in the meeting, when alders approved a rezone for a proposed 170-unit apartment complex just to the north and east of Fish Hatchery Road.

Gevers responded, saying he felt that even publicizing discussions about ripping down apartment buildings that people currently live in for future redevelopments causes unnecessary anxiety for residents.

Ald. Randy Udell (D-4) worried that holding E.J. Plesko to a different standard than other developers who were eyeing projects along Fish Hatchery Road would create a divide in the type of housing available.

“We’re approving projects on the east side of Fish Hatchery, but we’re not approving the same type of projects on the west side,” he said. “To me, what we’re basically doing with Fish Hatchery Road, it’s like, ‘what side of the tracks do you live on?’ You’ve got the wealthy apartments on the east side, and those with affordable housing on the west side.”

Other apartment complexes have been popping up along Fish Hatchery Road in the last three years. The Highline Senior Living apartment complex on the south side of Traceway Drive opened in May 2020; across the street, the Terrace Point complex brought an additional 157 apartments over four floors and 10,000 feet of commercial space, and another 170 units are in the early stages of development off of newly constructed Ochalla Drive.

Construction of the Traceway Drive development, if approved, would start in June 2022 and would be slated for a July 2023 completion, and would overlap with some construction on the neighboring Hub.