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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Fair
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Highlights from the Madison Common Council meeting rejecting Edgewater appeal


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Everybody knew it was going to be a long meeting. One TV reporter mused that he'd probably miss the deadline for the late night news. As it turned out, he would be pushing his deadline for the early morning news as well.

By the time the Madison Common Council voted against overturning the Landmark Commission's rejection of the Edgewater Hotel project, it was almost 5:30 in the morning and hundreds of people had spoken.

You can watch the proceedings at the Madison City Channel or get a rough blow-by-blow of the proceedings (along with some irreverent commentary) here, here or here.

The meeting lasted just about 11 hours. The Edgewater debate started about two hours in, at 8:20 p.m., after the council tackled some resolutions and deliberated a towing contract.

Here are some highlights.

  1. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, a supporter of the project, allowed the project developer, Bob Dunn of Hammes Sports and Entertainment Co., 25 minutes to make his case.

    Dunn, Hammes president, said guidelines in the landmarks ordinance are vague and confusing. They don't consider how the neighborhood has evolved, with bigger structures generally replacing smaller ones, "a pattern that's existed for 100 years."

    He argued that further reducing the size of the project, as some have urged, "completely undermines the financial integrity of this project." Hammes has scaled down its plan from $107 million plan to a $93 million.

  2. Stu Levitan, a member of the Landmarks Commission, explained why the commission rejected the project, calling it "the hardest and most important vote I have ever cast."

  3. Fred Mohs, who lives down the street from the Edgewater and has led opposition to the project, assured the council, "You're breaking every zoning law that applies to this property." He urged the city to risk having the developer walk away. "I am asking you to take that risk. Because it is a great lakefront property. Someone will surely purchase it and develop it, if he does not."

  4. Ald. Tim Bruer grilled Mohs, seeming to try to get him to admit to having an interest in developing the property himself. He didn't.

  5. More than 50 people signed up to speak at the meeting, and many stayed until the bitter end. Some of the feistiest commentary came from Kitty Rankin, the city's long-time preservation planner, who retired from the job last year.

    Rankin bristled at comments Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has made, like calling the Landmarks Commission "broken." She charged that overturning its decision would "put future developers on notice that downtown is for sale."

  6. Rankin's husband, attorney Gene Rankin, also spoke against the project and called City Attorney Michael May's advice "wrong." He said the hardship being claimed as justify an exception was self-created by the hotel's owner, which has neglected the property. He told the council, "What's relevant is your own ordinance."

  7. Reporter Dustin Weis organized a drinking game around the council meeting and blogger "Jill Sixpack" designed a corresponding bingo board. One of the game's rules was: "Any time Ald. Mike Verveer uses the word 'memorialize,' take a drink. If any other alder uses it, take two drinks. Shortly before 5 a.m., Verveer said: "I received many texts from the official council watching party begging me to say 'memorialize' so 'memorialize.'"

  8. Among all the pontificating by council members, Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway offered probably the most heartfelt speech of the evening, on how she agonized over the decision. She simultaneously blasted the public process yet also demonstrated a faith in that process.

    "It breaks my heart the way this process has run and what the project has done to this community and this body," she said around 5 a.m. "The damage is done. I hope it's not permanent, but the damage is done. It saddens me that we have thrown around words that are so disrespectful of democracy. I hope we can recover.... But it worries me."

  9. Until Rhodes-Conway spoke, only three members had declared their intention to vote against overturning the Landmarks Commission decision, leaving its fate an open question. Rhodes-Conway said that although getting bombarded with calls and emails was at times overwhelming, she ultimately appreciated the feedback from constituents.

    One of those constituents ultimately helped her decide how to vote, by telling her that if she couldn't articulate why the Landmarks Commission should be overturned, she should vote against overturning. "I can't articulate a reason why we should overturn," Rhodes-Conway said. "I can't. I'm sorry." She voted against the override; it needed 14 votes, but only got 12.

The most important part of the meeting may have happened afterward, during the day on Wednesday. Ald. Michael Schumacher, who was absent from the meeting, said he plans on asking council to reconsider. If he and at least one of the two other absent members vote in favor, the council could achieve the needed 14 votes.

Let's just hope it doesn't take all night to do it.

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