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Wednesday, January 28, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 22.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: The city stumbles on the Madison Municipal Building
Madison Municipal Building
Madison Municipal Building

A great old Madison landmark will remain chopped up and inappropriately used thanks to a recent decision by the Madison Common Council.

Two weeks ago, the council voted down a reasonable amendment by Ald. Mark Clear that would have kept the city's options open on the future of the Madison Municipal Building.

Here's some quick background. The Municipal Building was designed and used as a federal courthouse until the feds built a new one in 1984 behind what is now the Overture Center. They exchanged a beautiful, classic, dignified building for a goofy, big, blue tin can.

But, architectural tragedies aside, the city of Madison did the right thing by buying the building and saving it for another purpose later on. Sticking city functions in there for a limited time was a fine decision then.

The problem is that the stately Municipal Building wasn't designed for its current functions. A building meant for a couple of judges and a few law clerks now houses several city agencies. The beautiful old courtroom is now a makeshift, dark and uncomfortable hearing room with the Madison City Channel studios packed into the back of the chamber. The planning department is stuffed into the basement. Citizens have to find it with their GPS devices. The windows bleed energy. It's a mess.

And it's a mess that might cost about $24 million to fix, only to leave the city winding up with a building that still won't be optimal for office space because of its original configuration.

So, it has always seemed to me that it makes sense to find another use for that great old building and move those city offices into new, efficient and probably less expensive space.

All Mark Clear was suggesting was that we keep that sensible possibility on the table. Instead the council voted to restrict its own options by ruling out using the Madison Municipal Building as part of a larger hotel development behind the original structure.

The only reason reported was that they were suddenly in a hurry to get this done. Seriously, you guys? The city has been looking at this hotel for about seven years. Even if consideration of this option took a few more weeks, what difference could that possibly make? When you consider that this vote has now pretty much locked the city into better than $20 million in renovations on a building that still won't work all that well when it's done, it looks to me like that the sudden sense of urgency masked some other agenda. I have no idea what that is.

The only other reason offered by opponents of Clear's amendment was the notion that incorporating the Municipal Building into a hotel would some how restrict public access to it. But that argument doesn't hold water either. Maybe a few thousand people a year come through that building now. Many of them just want a building permit, but they have to find the Planning Department first, which isn't an easy task. Others want to attend a public meeting that they can get to only after the world's longest two-story elevator ride. Moreover, the building's historic character has been all but hidden if not ruined under cheap false ceilings and jury-rigged walls. With millions of dollars you can make that a little better, but it will still be a public building with lots of hidden spaces.

As part of a hotel, the city could have demanded restoration and public access that would have given many more citizens the opportunity to enjoy a rejuvenated building. And the public's business could have been provided in new, fully accessible, easy to locate and airy offices. Transparency in government, literally.

Instead, a narrow majority of the council bowed to the mayor's position on this, something they rarely do (to their credit). As a general rule, I think this council is doing a pretty darn good job of running the city whenever its members exercise their own judgment. But in this case, the council's acquiescence to the mayor was a mistake that will cost taxpayers more while it badly serves both them and a grand old building that deserves a better fate.

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