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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  A Few Clouds
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'Edgewatered' Madison voters can fight back on April 5
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The Edgewater demonstrates that Madison is really open for business.
The Edgewater demonstrates that Madison is really open for business.
Credit:Hammes Company

There are those who would have you believe the proposed expansion of the Edgewater Hotel is a wonderful thing. They say it's great that developer Robert Dunn and his supporters were able to overcome opposition to building a $93 million job-creating, economy-boosting, neighborhood-upgrading, subsidy-deserving project.

But what actually happened ought to make people cringe. Here's a partial list:

  • The 1970 Mansion Hill Historic District limits building height to 50 feet. Similarly, the city's 2006 Comprehensive Plan limits height on the new hotel tower site to 50 feet. So the city used a special zoning category to get around this. Dunn's latest plans show his tower to be 162 feet tall, more than three times taller than current zoning allows.
  • The city's waterfront setback ordinance requires new buildings to be set back about 100 feet from the lake. But that will kill the project, yelped the developer. No problem, said the city. We'll change the law so your 15-story tower can sit just 10.5 feet from Mendota's edge.
  • City tax incremental financing policies expressly forbid using TIF money for luxury housing. But Dunn told the city from day one that the top two floors of his new tower were going to be luxury condos. Well, it's a only a policy, responded the city, so we don't have to abide by it if we don't want to.
  • The 30-year old city landmarks ordinance contains clear language to prevent monster buildings from being constructed in historic districts. The Landmarks Commission voted to uphold this language, but the Common Council overrode its decision -- the first time this ever happened. Now the Edgewater project is 37 times larger than the average Mansion Hill building and the future of the city's historic districts is up in the air.
  • In addition to getting the council to sweep aside city ordinances, plans and policies, developer Dunn demanded a $16 million TIF subsidy. And a majority of alders agreed. Said the city in effect: We give bonuses to scofflaws.

These facts raise two questions for voters next Tuesday: Is it okay for the city to sweep aside ordinances, plans and policies just for one project? Is it okay to do this without first changing ordinances, plans and policies and then requiring all projects to abide by those rules? My answer is "no."

If city leaders can adopt this scofflaw approach to a project in Mansion Hill, they can do it anywhere in the city. That's why more than 100 neighborhood association leaders showed up on a Saturday morning last July at Trinity Lutheran Church on the near east side. They understood that the bulwark of neighborhood-protecting ordinances now meant nothing.City approval of the Edgewater establishes an ugly, unacceptable and unsustainable precedent. Do we really want Madison to become a city where the rule of law -- the combination of city ordinances, plans, and policies -- is optional? Unfortunately, that's where we are.

Developers would be fools not to demand The Edgewater Deal. Already many are scurrying to suffuse more "flexibility" into the city's new zoning law. But why, I ask, do we want to abandon consistency and predictability -- the fundamentals of good government -- in favor of cronyism, favoritism, zoning de jure and wink-wink?

The Edgewater demonstrates that Madison is really open for business. Mayor Dave boasts that Madison can be pro-business and progressive at the same time. Now we know how: by lowering our standards and then bragging about the results. Gov. Walker will be thrilled to discover that Madison's leaders are marching in lockstep with his administration's top goal.

So what should one do at the polls on April 5? That Mayor Cieslewicz supports the Edgewater without reservations is a given. Challenger Paul Soglin says he won't block it because "the project has already received key city approvals."

However, if Cieslewicz is elected, we can expect four more years of neighborhood-dismissing, preservation-destroying, law-scorning, take-no-prisoners, big-project crusades. If Soglin is elected, we can expect thoughtful neighborhood involvement, a priority on historic preservation, respect for ordinances, plans and policies, and time-tested skill in implementing big projects. That's why I have a Soglin sign in my front yard.

Meanwhile, let me propose that a new verb enter Madison's political lexicon: Edgewatered. Here's the definition:

"1. To approve a project by sweeping aside ordinances, plans and policies and by giving the developer a large financial incentive. 2. To employ favoritism and expedience. 3. To govern without consistency and predictability."

David Mollenhoff is the author of Madison: A History of the Formative Years and co-author of Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace: The Enduring Power of a Civic Vision.

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