A city planning staff report recommends that the Madison Landmarks Commission turn down a request by Steve Brown Apartments to demolish a house at 127 W. Gilman St. in the Mansion Hill Historic District. The report also recommends that the panel reject the developer's current proposal, which calls for replacing two houses and the Highlander, a student high-rise, with three five-story brownstone apartment buildings.
The report says that the "standards for granting the certificate of appropriateness" for the demolition have not been met; that the "gross volume" of the new development has a "questionable relationship" to the properties near the development; and that the "design is not appropriate."
The Landmarks Commission is scheduled to review the proposal on Jan. 6.
Margaret Watson, chief operating officer for Steve Brown Apartments, says that based on three professional reports and letters from construction and conservationist professionals, 127 W. Gilman St. has "outlived its useful life."
"We hope the commission sees the many benefits of the new development outweigh the demo of 127," Watson wrote in an email. She also says that she looks forward to a "thoughtful discussion with Landmarks" on design suggestions for the project.
Steve Brown Apartments owns multiple downtown properties, including many in the Mansion Hill Historic District. This pending project would reshape a large portion of the 100 block of West Gilman Street.
The new apartments, a total of 60, would be a mix of one- and two-bedroom units, ranging from $900 to $1,300 and $1,700 to $1,900 per month, respectively. There would also be underground parking for 60 cars.
"Gilman Street needs something; we need some revitalization there," says Watson. "We see a need for housing that appeals to students and others who want to live downtown."
But Ald. Ledell Zellers, a Mansion Hill resident who represents the area on the Common Council, says there are a lot of "significant questions" about the project that need to be resolved.
According to Zellers, residents at neighborhood meetings have expressed concern about the height of the proposed buildings, which are about five times taller than most houses within the historic district. They also worry that the demolition of the Highlander would remove needed affordable housing, and that razing the 1893 home at 127 W. Gilman would set a bad example.
"Some owners are concerned that this could create precedent that would make or break the [historic] district," says Zellers.
Demolition by neglect
The Mansion Hill Historic District, which was the first such district created in Madison, in 1976, covers the residential neighborhood north of the Capitol roughly between North Henry and Butler streets and Lake Mendota and East Johnson Street. It's a neighborhood of stately single-family homes as well as rental and student housing.
To make room for Steve Brown Apartments' three new brownstones, the developer is proposing to move the house located at 123 W. Gilman St. to 113 W. Gorham St.; raze the Highlander at 121 W. Gilman St.; and tear down the deteriorating house at 127 W. Gilman St.
The developer claims that 127 W. Gilman St. is unsafe and unsalvageable, but some -- including city building inspectors -- charge that the house has been purposely neglected in an effort to force its demolition.
In a July building inspection report for 127 W. Gilman St., the inspector noted that "it appears that the owner [is] attempting to allow the building [to] erode through neglect and plans on using deteriorated conditions as justification and support for demolition at [a] future date."
The report also lists the dates of previous inspections and the orders to Brown for improvements. The city had granted Steve Brown Apartments a number of extensions to make the necessary improvements -- including foundation repair and cosmetic exterior upkeep -- but concluded that "No work has been done and the case is no longer eligible for extension."
Having "run out of tools or options to get the property into compliance," the city referred the case to the city attorney's office for prosecution in early July, says Kyle Bunnow, city housing inspection supervisor.
Assistant City Attorney Lana Mades says the property owner made clear through correspondence that he "wishes to go through the process for demolition." Mades says she will not move forward on prosecution until his permit for demolition has been acted on.
"We don't want the property owner to spend money restoring a building only for it to be torn down," she says.
The developer plans to present revised plans to the Landmarks Commission on Jan. 6 that address the project's height and window and garage designs. Watson, of Steve Brown Apartments, says the changes respond to requests from city staff, members of the Landmarks Commission, community residents, conservationists and Brownhouse, the architectural firm working on the project.
Watson rejects any suggestion that 127 W. Gilman St., a former rooming house when purchased in 1994, was allowed to fall into disrepair for the purpose of demolition and redevelopment. She says that "Steve Brown has a great love for Mansion Hill" and appreciates the dialogue that has resulted from discussion with neighbors about the project. "We want to do it right and respect the process," she adds.
But there are many reasons that restoring the house is not feasible, says Watson. She says that the house was damaged twice by fire and that the previous owner had to repair the foundation three times. In 2002 Steve Brown Apartments deemed the building so unsafe that it was no longer rented to tenants and used only for storage.
The city staff report suggests that the Landmarks Commission discuss relocating the house. But Watson says movers who have looked into relocating the house say it might fall apart if moved. And restoring the building, she adds, could top $300,000.
'Living up to our responsibilities'
Steve Brown Apartments owns about 10% of the buildings in the Mansion Hill Historic District and has invested millions in repairs, remodeling and rehab in the area over the past seven years, says Watson.
The company first looked into developing the 100 block of West Gilman Street in 2002, but "the neighborhood wasn't ready," she says. Watson says the company continued to take care of the "structure and exterior" of the then-vacant house at 127 W. Gilman and in 2011 began looking again at developing the area. At that point, says Watson, the company began requesting -- and receiving -- extensions for building upkeep and repair.
"We have every intention of living up to our responsibilities," says Watson of maintaining the company's properties.
Watson says the apartment project will cost $12 million to $15 million and take up to 16 months to construct. When completed, it would increase property values from about $40,000 to $180,000, she adds.