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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Urban Design Commission tours and evaluates recent projects it approved around Madison
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Madison's Urban Design Commission is often the arbiter of taste for what gets built here.
Credit:Joe Tarr

Dick Wagner walks through the Bassett Neighborhood with his colleagues on the Urban Design Commission (UDC), when he spots something disappointing in front of a brand new apartment building at 636 W. Doty Street.

"I hope everyone noticed the landscaping of a single marigold plant," quips Wagner, who in his role on the UDC, approved the plans for the building, developed by McGrath Property Group.

Although Wagner would like to see more than a lonely plant in front of the building, he's generally pleased with the area, which is known as "Findorff Yards," a neighborhood of old warehouses that has been converted to high-end residential in recent years.

As Wagner later explains to Isthmus, "The city has been very successfully replacing some worn out housing stock with some better housing stock. We have some successful strategies."

Madison's Urban Design Commission is often the arbiter of taste for what gets built here. Its purpose, as defined by city ordinance, is "to assure the highest quality of design for all public and private projects in the city."

But just how good is that body's taste and judgment? The commission members and others took a bus tour of recently built projects Wednesday evening to evaluate its work.

It's something that UDC and Plan Commission members used to do regularly, but haven't for about a decade. The commission was scheduled to tour 13 recent projects, but had to skip two projects because of lack of time.

Overall, the members of the panel seemed pleased. "I think most of the projects we saw are good projects," says commissioner John Harrington, a landscape architect who works for UW-Madison. "Each of us always has things we'd like to see done differently. We sometimes look back and say 'maybe that was a mistake,' but generally there's not too many of those."

The commission looked at some projects that had undergone several design reviews, such as The Ideal, a mixed-use building at 502 Park St. "We worked hard on this one," said Ald. Marsha Rummel, a former UDC member, standing in front of the building. The project was originally a story taller with a larger mass -- the commission made the developers stagger the building's facade and height on Drake Street, to make it appear like two buildings.

This carved out a courtyard in the middle of the project. But some commissioners felt the courtyard wasn't landscaped the way they had approved.

That was a common theme on the tour. Several commissioners noticed small details they hadn't approved.

"You'll see a garage door that wasn't correctly done," says Wagner. "Or downspouts [for gutters] that are just tacked on. When [developers] present designs to us, they often don't show the downspouts."

Al Martin, the UDC's staff member, says often this happens because the developer hasn't designed the fine details yet when presenting a project to the commission.

Martin says the tours are important so that commissioners can take a look at the latest design trends. "The need to go out and look at how these projects turned out is critical, because they're going to see [these architectural styles] again."

Wagner says the city needs to better consider how new, larger projects are looking next to older buildings. City View, a luxury 12-story, student tower at 313-315 N. Frances St. offers a good example of this: lining an alley next to the building are a few modest, two-story wooden houses, a relic of a different era.

"Clearly, they now seem totally out of place," Wagner says. "I have not much doubt they will be redeveloped."

Harrington had a different concern. "My only concern with that particular project is the lack of room for any landscaping," he says. "We need to put more priority on our urban forest. We're designing these buildings to get maximum land use and in doing so, we push out room for urban forest."

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