The primary question in any urban redevelopment proposal is this: Is what is being proposed to be built better than what it's replacing?
Now, that's always a subjective question to some extent. But when it comes to the proposal to take down a really ugly ten-story concrete bunker on Gilman Street and replace it with three five-story brownstone-style apartments, this shouldn't even be a close call.
Actually, it wasn't even a close call at last week's Madison Landmarks Commission meeting. This good proposal was rejected unanimously.
It's hard to understand the extent of this debacle without pictures. So take a look at the gallery above.
First, look at the Highlander apartment building. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the Taj Mahal and one being the Humanities Building, where would you put the Highlander? I know. It makes Humanities look pretty good, doesn't it?
Now look at the Elms, a century-old brick apartment building that has been in the shadow of the Highlander to its east for three or four decades. How would you rate the Elms? I'd say a six or a seven. It's a pretty, solid, civil urban neighborhood building.
Next look at the old beat-up student housing on the other side of the Highlander. These buildings had their day once, but now they're tired and the architecture is nothing special. And they're out of scale with the awful Highlander and even to some extent with the very nice Elms building and the large classic apartment building that frames the other end of the block.
The Commission accuses Steve Brown Apartments, the owner of the property and developer of the new project, of not properly maintaining one of the houses. Brown generally is thought of as a pretty good actor with the many properties he owns, but even if the building was in mint condition, that still wouldnâ€™t justify preserving it.
That's the way most of us would look at this situation. A terrible building and two ratty, old student houses get knocked down or moved, to be replaced by three really nice new brick buildings that key off the prettiest older structure on the block. What's being proposed is much better than what it's replacing.
But if you looked at things that way, you wouldn't be a member of the Landmarks Commission or the alder who represents the area, Ledell Zellers. Both Zellers and the Commission would go along with taking down the Highlander, but they want the old houses saved. And they claim that the new buildings would be too big for the block.
But the new buildings would be only one story higher than the Elms, and still only be half the height of the existing Highlander that the developer would mercifully remove. It's the crummy old houses that are out of character with the block.
You can't do the city and the neighborhood the great favor of removing an ugly big building and two dilapidated houses and replacing them with three good buildings without replacing the density of units. And anyway, more density is good for urban neighborhoods.
So the Commission ruling is pure madness.
I hope Steve Brown challenges this before the Madison Common Council and that the council overrides the Commission with enthusiasm. Sometimes these things are highly subjective. This one isn't. Brown's proposal is nothing but a win for the city.