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Despite long-time controversy from members of the community and church, Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said the council had no choice but to divide the church and school.[/media-credit]

After hearing impassioned pleas from residents, parishioners and Mayor Paul Soglin, Madison’s City Council narrowly granted approval for the property subdivision of Holy Redeemer School and Holy Redeemer Church.

The City Council’s approval allows for the conversion of Holy Redeemer School into a future housing complex called Lumen House aimed at University of Wisconsin students.

From the project’s planning stages, the development of Lumen House was orchestrated by a development team and pastor who failed to gain the approval of church congregants, said Holy Redeemer parishioner Gail Geib.

“The development team and Monsignor Kevin Holmes have consistently misinformed Holy Redeemer parishioners, demeaned them and, on several occasions, even attempted to prevent them from voicing their extreme displeasure with this project in public meetings,” Geib said.

Parishioners who spoke to the council characterized the motivation behind the Madison Catholic Diocese and Cathedral Parish’s decision to convert the school into student housing as purely financial.

Soglin said the project takes advantage of the Special Project Amendment to the state budget of 2010, which stipulates that residential property owned by nonprofit organizations are exempt from real estate and personal property taxes if 90 percent of tenants are enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. He said this amendment was not intended to be used for profitable motives.

“The purpose … of granting tax exemptions … is when [nonprofits] use the incremental savings in taxes to reinvest in support services for the utilization of the tenants on the site,” Soglin said. “The money that is not paid into the coffers of the city, the county and school district goes into services of the low income residents who live there. That principle has been violated.”

Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, explained council members had no choice but to support the resolution despite the controversy it has generated in the parish. He noted the council was approving a zoning survey using standards unrelated to the financial and social concerns that surround the project.

City Attorney Michael May said failing to approve the resolution would likely lead to a lawsuit, which the city would probably lose.

“The standards that you look at … relate to things like drainage of the property. Are there adequate transportation facilities nearby? Very, very limited things,” he said. “This is a permitted use in that area, so the standards that you have to apply are very limited. Legally, I don’t think we have a basis for turning them down.”

Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, District 5, said even though City Council had few options to change the outcome of Holy Redeemer School’s conversion, they should take the case as an opportunity to evaluate city policies that affect downtown development more broadly.

Ald. Steve King, District 7, questioned the logic behind being asked to vote with his hands tied.

“I’m ticked off about the process,” King said. “Why the hell do we have all this public debate if we are going to be told we can’t vote a certain way? Then are we even voting? Why does the process even allow this”?

Despite passing the resolution in an 11 to nine vote, nearly all 20 city alders expressed dismay with the process by which the proposal had come before them.