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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Overcast
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Edgewater rule-bending unwise
Madison is paying too great a price to let project proceed
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David Mollenhoff
David Mollenhoff

What Madison city leaders are doing to pass the Edgewater Hotel project should make citizens cringe. Law after time-tested law is being altered or abandoned to assure the project's approval.

The proposed $93 million project is located in one of the most heavily regulated parts of the city. It's in the middle of the city's oldest historic district, home to nearly half of its landmarks.

The landmark ordinance controlling this district made it illegal to build anything that exceeded tightly defined size and mass requirements. Zoning limited building height to 50 feet. Ordinances required lakeshore buildings to be set back to protect water quality.

But developer Bob Dunn of Hammes Co. was undaunted. In effect, he told city officials he was not going to abide by its laws. Furthermore, he demanded a $16 million subsidy. It was all-or-nothing high-stakes poker.

"Now, now, Mr. Dunn, don't worry," city officials replied. "Just give us a little time and we can remove those laws from the books and you can go forward with your project."

Encouraged, Dunn released a series of dazzling full-color renderings. One showed a 17-story building within the Wisconsin Avenue right-of-way - in direct violation of a 1965 city ordinance. Another showed a panoramic lake view that a pedestrian would see from the Wisconsin-Langdon corner. Unfortunately, that view was real only if the person was 20 feet tall.

Another widely circulated rendering showed the "Grand Staircase" leading from Langdon to the lake that was nearly twice as wide as later dimensioned drawings revealed. And several drawings included a gigantic DNR-prohibited pier sticking out into Lake Mendota.

None of these actions inspired confidence in the developer. But the Common Council nonetheless swiftly approved the $16 million subsidy. And after the Landmarks Commission refused to approve the project because it blatantly violated size and mass criteria in the landmarks ordinance, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz dubbed the process "broken" and "anti-democratic."

Others plan to make the Landmarks Commission advisory and let the council approve any project that violated landmarks criteria. No problem!

To get around the 50-foot height limit, the city would approve a site-specific exemption. To get around a rule requiring a 10-foot-minimum view-preserving setback, Ald. Bridget Maniaci proposed a revision to repeal it. No problem! [The print version of this article incorrectly stated that Maniaci proposed repealing both obstacles.]

The Edgewater project offers tantalizing benefits. It would rehabilitate the long-neglected and functionally obsolete 1946 Edgewater Hotel. It would provide a public plaza on top of the street end and improve the view of Lake Mendota from the Wisconsin-Langdon corner. It would provide a more obvious staircase leading from Langdon to the lakeshore.

But to get these benefits, Madison must allow Dunn to build an incorrigibly huge new hotel tower that trashes just about every size, mass, height, setback and shoreland zoning requirement on the city's books.

How big is the new tower? Its height is nearly double what today's zoning allows. Its size and mass are three to 16 times bigger than that of the nearby buildings. Its volume in cubic feet is the equivalent of 1½ Tenney Buildings jammed into a residentially zoned neighborhood just 16 feet from Lake Mendota.

Council members took an oath to uphold Madison's laws and procedures, but instead they are creating a fast, unimpeded track where criteria and procedures are systematically revoked for just one project. Is that fair?

If the council can exempt a whole class of buildings from lakefront setbacks in Mansion Hill, it can exempt them anywhere. If the council can abandon zoning height limits in Mansion Hill, it can abandon them in low-density areas. If the council can throw out today's 40-year-old residential zoning in Mansion Hill, it can do it in any neighborhood.

And who in their right mind would buy and fix up a home in Mansion Hill after the city has suddenly repealed the zoning that protected this neighborhood? That bell, fellow citizens, tolls for thee.

Where is this all leading? Once the city creates a sweetheart deal for the Edgewater, we can expect a large tower on the undeveloped adjoining land owned by National Guardian Life. Developers will be thrilled to convert residentially zoned land into commercial uses for projects from James Madison Park to the UW campus.

Hey, you did it for the Edgewater; now do it for me. Precedents are incredibly powerful.

Perhaps the worst casualty of the Edgewater affair is the rule of law. Driven by the Edgewater project, an insidious new policy is being created before our eyes. It has many names: exceptionalism, favoritism, a double standard, spot zoning, ad hoc zoning, zoning du jour, and whatever it takes.

Here's the problem: After you have this scofflaw reputation, how can you restore fairness, consistency, predictability, honesty and good public policy?

David Mollenhoff is the author of Madison: A History of the Formative Years and a former member of the Madison Landmarks Commission.

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