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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Light Rain Fog/Mist
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Calls intensify to overhaul Madison landmarks ordinance after council rejects Mansion Hill project
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The controversy over the Steve Brown proposal has turned up the volume of calls to overhaul the landmarks ordinance.
Credit:Steve Brown Apartments

The Madison Common Council's decision to uphold the Landmarks Commission's rejection of a development project for West Gilman Street was a clear victory for neighborhood groups and historic preservationists.

But it's unlikely the council's action will be the last time the city fights over the issue. People from both sides are calling for an overhaul of the city's landmarks ordinance to avoid future battles.

"The primary issue here is the landmarks ordinance has some real problems," says Ald. Mark Clear, who supported the development. "One of those problems is the ambiguity of it."

Ald. Ledell Zellers, who opposed the West Gilman proposal, which is in her district, also says more clarity would help. "When somebody can conceive of something this large and think it's compatible, I think we need to help them understand what fits in an historic district."

Steve Brown Apartments had proposed demolishing a house at 127 W. Gilman St. and the 10-story Highlander apartment building at 121 W. Gilman St., and moving a house located at 123 W. Gilman St.

In its place the company wanted to build three five-story brownstone-style apartment buildings. The Landmarks Commission rejected the proposals because the gross volume of the new buildings would have been more than twice the volume of the Highlander.

But proponents argued that the proposed buildings were much better than what is currently on the site. The Highlander -- a 1968 brick apartment building referred to derisively as one of the city's "big uglies" -- was vilified in the debate. Eight years after the building was constructed, the city created the Mansion Hill Historic District in 1976.

"The Highlander is part of the reason the [Mansion Hill historic] district was created," Clear says. "There ought to be value in getting rid of it."

The council upheld the Landmark's decision, in a 12-to-6 vote after 2 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Margaret F. Watson, CEO of Steve Brown Apartments, issued a news release Tuesday evening, saying the company would not revise its plans for the project. Watson, who did not return phone calls from Isthmus, said in the statement: "We will not be developing a new proposal for the Mansion Hill site and do not believe that responsible proposals for any of the historic districts are likely to be developed until these issues have been explored and resolved."

While the Highlander still has tenants, 127 Gilman has pending code enforcement issues, says George Hank, director of the city's building inspection.

"Really the only building we have issues with is 127 [W. Gilman], which has been vacant for more than a decade," he says, adding that there's a hole in the roof.

The enforcement to get the company to comply was put off because of the development plans, Hank says. "Nobody wants to see anybody spend large amounts of money on a building that has a significant chance of being torn down," he says. But since the proposal was rejected, "Now we need to at least make sure we slow down deterioration, and that means keeping water out of the building."

The house's foundation is also in bad shape, but Hank said he didn't anticipate the city would force the company to fix it.

"I don't think anybody would try to rehabilitate that building without dealing with the foundation," he says. "Until someone comes forward with a plan to develop it, putting in a new foundation would probably be premature. Certainly the foundation is in very bad shape but it's not like it's going to collapse."

This is the second time in five years that the landmarks ordinance has been at the heart of a development dispute. It came up in the same neighborhood in 2009, over a proposal to renovate and expand the Edgewater Hotel, which the Landmarks Commission also rejected. The Common Council at first upheld the commission's decision, but months later, fought the battle all over, and overturned the panel's ruling.

The controversy over the Steve Brown proposal has turned up the volume of calls to overhaul the landmarks ordinance.

Clear says the problems with the law were evident from the council's long debate. Officials and alders argued how the city should measure volume, what "visually compatible" means, and what defines a hardship to the developer.

The ordinance states that "gross volume of any new Structure shall be visually compatible with the buildings and environment with which it is visually related."

During the meeting, city planning director Katherine Cornwell proposed a new way of measuring volume, by looking only at the facade and not the depth of buildings, an argument that puzzled some council members and others, including Stu Levitan, chair of the Landmarks Commission.

"We've got 38 years understanding and implementing the phrase 'gross volume,'" says Levitan. "Unless you're trying to sow confusion, I don't think it's a difficult term to understand -- it's not a one-dimensional concept, it's not a two dimensional concept. The subjectivity is in the phrase visually compatible."

Levitan agrees that revisions to the law could help and says the commission has been contemplating changes for years.

"I think the debate highlighted some of the weaknesses in the current ordinance," Levitan says. "And that's why we've been working to clarify them."

Clear also wants changes. "The grounds for appeal and the standards for appeal are kind of a mess and also ambiguous," he says. "We spent a lot of time both on this one and the Edgewater talking about what it meant, and what constitutes hardship."

Zellers, who lives in Mansion Hill, is also open to changes but says that the city needs to make a commitment to protecting its historic areas.

"If we want to have an historic district, we have to make an effort to protect it," she says. "We have less than 1% of our land in historic districts."

And she adds: "I sure hope we don't keep having these battles."

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