Last week, Madison Landmarks Commission chair Stu Levitan wrote a blistering response to my op-ed taking that body to task for its refusal to grant a certificate of appropriateness to tear down three tired buildings on Gilman Street and replace them with three much better ones.
Stu concedes pretty much that the three existing buildings are bad. And he doesn't comment about the proposal for the new ones. He just says that they're too big.
Stu makes my case for me. His response totally misses the point as he dwells on officious legalese, rather than common sense, to make his case. He rejects my suggestion that we judge each proposal to take down an old building by asking if what would replace it is better by pointing out that that's not what the landmarks ordinance uses as a standard.
It doesn't matter. I was arguing for common sense and a perspective of what is best for the city, not making a case one way or the other about what the ordinance says. But while we're at it, Levitan is probably wrong about the law too. He hangs his legal hat on the idea that the size of the new buildings would be too big. But the ordinance is vague at best on this point. It states that the "gross volume of any new structure shall be visually compatible with the buildings and environment" around it.
The ordinance says the buildings have to be "visually compatible" (emphasis added), so Stu's recitation of building volume numbers is meaningless. It doesn't matter what the numbers are. How does it look? I look at what's already there and I look at what's proposed, and it looks compatible to me. Stu looks at it and says it's not.
Of course, nobody can be right about this. It's just a judgment call, but there's nothing about the law that compels the current outcome. The commission could have gone the other way if it wanted to.
But even if he was right, Stu is just underscoring what's wrong with this system. Give me 10 people off the street. Show them what's there. Show them what's proposed. I'll bet that at least nine will say the new buildings are better.
If the ordinance compels the wrong decision from a broad public interest perspective, well, then change the ordinance. Don't rub salt in the wound by making it so hard to overturn a bad decision. That's why I support making the commission advisory to the Common Council instead of requiring a supermajority vote to overturn its rulings.
This isn't the first time the commission has gone off the rails. The problem is partially with the law and partially with the current commissioners. Both need to be changed. The historic preservation movement in this town has become arrogant with its power and esoteric if not eccentric in its views. It needs reform.
I believe in historic preservation. I just don't believe in it as the only and preeminent value.
At the end of the excellent PBS documentary on The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, architecture critic Paul Goldberger sums it up best: "The challenge is how you balance the need to preserve what's best, what's most important, and the need to continually invent, and change, and grow -- because that's what living places have to do."