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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Edgewater dust-up could impact Madison's landmarks ordinance
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The William F. Vilas estate, 12 E. Gilman St., around 1945. Demolition of the 1859 mansion helped spark the creation of the City of Madison Landmarks Commission. The Edgewater proposes expanding onto the estate's grounds, now owned by National Guardian Life.
The William F. Vilas estate, 12 E. Gilman St., around 1945. Demolition of the 1859 mansion helped spark the creation of the City of Madison Landmarks Commission. The Edgewater proposes expanding onto the estate's grounds, now owned by National Guardian Life.
Credit:State Historical Society of Wisconsin, image 52105

The supreme irony of the debate over expanding the Edgewater Hotel is that the exact same patch of land that sparked the creation of Madison's Landmarks Commission nearly 40 years ago could now kill it.

Suddenly, much more is at stake than just the Edgewater. On Tuesday evening, the Common Council will decide whether or not to overturn the Landmarks Commission's Nov. 30 vote to reject the expansion. But the issue could also affect the future of the commission, which Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has declared "broken."

It's high political drama, with a super-majority of 14 of 20 alders needed to allow the Edgewater project to proceed. Two alders, Larry Palm and Michael Schumacher, will be unable to attend.

"It's turning out to be a very close vote," says Ald. Mike Verveer, who will vote to uphold Landmarks' rejection of the Edgewater. "I don't see how you can support any other conclusion."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation have both come out against the project,  which the Commission deemed visually incompatible with its surroundings. The commission's approval was needed because the Edgewater is in city and federal historic districts.

No one has ever before appealed a Landmarks Commission ruling to the council. And regardless of the outcome, Cieslewicz has vowed to "fix" the way the city handles preservation, both the "broken city approval process" and the "vague and narrowly drafted [landmarks] ordinance."

Kitty Rankin, for three decades the city's preservation planner, is alarmed by such talk. "The mayor is in the development community's lap by repeating a phrase that the Landmarks Commission process is flawed," she says. "I have yet to see that it is indeed flawed."

Not even the Edgewater developer, Hammes Sports and Entertainment, foresaw the mayor's challenge.

"No, no," says Hammes president Bob Dunn. The company promised from the start that its project would not set a precedent for the neighborhood. Now, however, it could set a precedent for the entire city. Dunn has plenty of problems with the ordinance, and he'd welcome change, but that "in no way was the intention of this project."

At stake is how Madison defines itself and its history. It's a battle that's been fought many times between developers and preservationists as the city has grown. And the first battlefield was right next to where the Edgewater now stands.

"The best house in Madison," is what Frank Lloyd Wright called the sprawling home of William F. Vilas at 12 E. Gilman Street. Vilas was a U.S. Senator, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil War, and he served on the cabinet of President Grover Cleveland, who visited him here. Vilas County is named for him. He also gave us Henry Vilas Park and named it for his son.

His mansion was demolished in 1963 to make way for the headquarters of National Guardian Life, which intends to sell off the rear of the former Vilas estate for Edgewater expansion.

The Vilas demolition set off a storm of controversy that lasted a decade. In that "Mad Men" era, historic preservation emerged as a personal cause of Jackie Kennedy's.

When another historic Madison home was demolished, by Burger King in 1971, Mayor William Dyke spearheaded creation of the preservation ordinance and Landmarks Commission. Since then, the city has established five historic districts and named 135 historic landmarks throughout the city, including several parks and Native American mounds.

But Cieslewicz says the Edgewater debate points up a Commission in need of reform. In making its decision, the commission "could only look at very narrow, highly subjective criteria without considering the broader community benefits of the project." He's also called the commission "a handful of unelected people" and described its power as "fundamentally undemocratic."

Counters Rankin, who retired last year, "It's called representative democracy." Five of the seven Landmarks commissioners were appointed by Cieslewicz himself. These include Ald. Bridget Maniaci, who voted for the expansion and agrees with Cieslewicz that the process is flawed.

"We really struggled with the language in the ordinance," says Maniaci of the commission's 5-2 vote denying the Edgewater a variance or certificate of appropriateness. "We had some key phrases that we just didn't have definitions for. For instance, on the variance language, there's a word about properties within the visually related area."

Dunn agrees. "There are structural issues with that language that really need to be addressed for the good of the city as it relates to historic districts and historic properties, not just downtown but the city at large."

Rankin rejects that analysis. "I think it boggles anyone's mind that the words 'visual' and 'compatible' put together are so difficult to figure out," she says.

Madison's landmarks ordinance is not unusual. It copies language from other cities. It covers seven and a third single-spaced pages. If anything is left unclear, the city has a website and a small library of official planning books and booklets.

For example, preservation is included in "Downtown 2000," "The State Street Strategic Plan," "Urban Design Guidelines for Downtown Madison" and "Vision 2020" (written by the county, accepted by the city). There's "A City in the Four Lakes Country: A Preservation Handbook," "The Historic Resources of Downtown Madison," and a city task force's "Downtown Historic Preservation Plan," funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Specific to the Edgewater debate, there's also the 64-page "Mansion Hill District Preservation Plan and Development Handbook," which is so exhaustive that it covers recommendations to developers including proportions, materials, height, elevation, texture, color, spacing of doors and windows, gaps ("rhythm of solids to voids") and -- the Edgewater panic buttons -- visual compatibility and bulk.

But Maniaci thinks the problem is with the Landmarks ordinance, whose language she is looking at with an eye toward changing.

Genell Scheurell, senior program officer with National Trust for Historic Preservation, has seen this reaction before. "I think communities that are under significant development pressures perceive situations where big question marks come up more frequently," she says. "I've never seen a system that couldn't be improved. However, I'm not sure that changing the landmarks ordinance is a way of achieving that goal."

In fact, Scheurell suggests Madison may not know how lucky it is. "I think it's an excellent ordinance," she says. "I couldn't say where it ranked nationwide, but I really think it's a thoughtful, well-done ordinance. And obviously it wouldn't have lasted 39 years if it wasn't a good ordinance and it didn't have the support of the community behind it."

Maniaci is unimpressed that the National Trust for Historic Preservation thinks highly of Madison's ordinance. "Do you think they'd say anything differently?" she asks.

As for the Vilas mansion, all that's left of it now are newspaper clippings, such as a Wisconsin State Journal article from 1926, long before it was demolished.

"The regrettable thing about these romantic old homes is that they are all too fast losing their original charm," noted the paper. "They are, in fact, milestones in the architectural development of Madison. Efforts should be made to preserve their original style."

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