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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Cost estimates to rebuild Lothlorien co-op has board seriously considering sale of lakefront property
Loth's 40-year-old history runs deep in Madison.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

Members of the Madison Community Cooperative (MCC) recently received estimates of what it would cost to renovate the legendary Lothlorien Housing Collective building, and it's not pretty.

A Sept. 11, 2013 fire damaged much of the four-story Lake Mendota mansion, located in the heart of Langdon Street's fraternity row. Since then, the 31-unit building at 244 W. Lakelawn Pl. has been shuttered, and its 34 residents have scattered to new homes.

"Loth," as it's commonly called, is the largest of 11 housing cooperatives owned by MCC. On Wednesday, the non-profit's board of directors discussed its fate.

No decisions were made, but based on estimates presented by MCC staff, repairing Loth could put the non-profit organization nearly a half-million dollars in the hole. By contrast, proceeds from selling, coupled with insurance money from the fire, could bring in enough cash to buy replacement units elsewhere in Madison and leave $150,000 left over.

The land alone is valued at more than $1.6 million, according to an appraisal in January by Madison-based Scott Appraisal, LLC, which suggested the "highest and best use" for the property would be a student apartment building up to five stories tall.

Loth's 40-year-old history runs deep in Madison, where it's known for its parties and counter-culture vibe. One board member called it a "transformative space" where couples have met and married, and its lakefront location is prime.

But many of the roughly 20 members at Wednesday's meeting aired concerns that borrowing money to rebuild Loth could drive up rents for the nearly 200 MCC members, thus undercutting the group's mission to provide affordable housing in a city starved for it. MCC's monthly rents typically hover between $350 and $550 and are already set to climb in June by $5 to $10 a month to cover higher insurance premiums stemming from the fire, says MCC maintenance director Mike Carlson.

"I'm already hearing from people struggling with rent," says a member who gave his name as T.K. "I'm a lot more connected to the people that lived at Loth than the building."

Still, T.K. says he needs more information before deciding whether he'd vote to sell or save Loth. The board could decide as early as Wednesday which course to recommend. After that, ballots could be sent to all MCC members. By the organization's bylaws, two-thirds would need to approve a sale.

Elijah McCloskey is among former Loth residents lobbying for rebuilding. He says he plans to explore fundraising or grants and proposed raising rent solely for Loth residents to close the financial gap. And if members opt to sell, he at least hopes Loth will go to another cooperative that could carry on Loth's legacy.

"I think that morally as an organization, we shouldn't sell this property to a developer," he said.

But other members noted that proceeds from a sale could let MCC branch out from its mostly downtown footprint into other parts of the city.

At the meeting, MCC finance coordinator Kathy Parker acknowledged the strong emotional attachment to Lothlorien.

"I don't know what it's like to lose a house. I imagine it's terrible," she said. But, she added, "In my mind, it's very clear that financially... (selling) is the best decision."

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