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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Madison Landmarks Commission staffer arrives at pivotal time
Can new planner preserve the peace?
Amy Scanlon, the city's new preservation planner.
Amy Scanlon, the city's new preservation planner.

People came to the Landmarks Commission meeting Monday night just to get a peek at Madison's new preservation planner.

The position has been vacant since December 2008, when Kitty Rankin - the first and only person to hold the job - retired after 30 years. Since then, historic preservation has become a focal point of political battles.

The Landmarks Commission, which the preservation planner provides staff support to, twice denied approvals for renovations to the Edgewater Hotel, leading to long battles on the Common Council, which eventually overruled the commission (see "Edgewater Development Approved, Hard Questions Remain," 5/19/2010). Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has called for restructuring the commission to make it easier to override its decisions.

On Monday Amy Scanlon, an architect from Missouri who has worked in Philadelphia for the past 14 years, started work. Her first Landmarks meeting was that night.

At that meeting, a planning department staffer ran interference, declaring Scanlon off-limits to questions. When a reporter persisted, the staffer protested, "Oh, don't ask her about the Edgewater - it's her first day."

Asked about the Edgewater, Scanlon said she followed the debate online during the hiring process and was not scared off. On the contrary, "It showed me people in Madison are very interested in historic preservation and the economic benefits of that."

Scanlon didn't say, and wasn't pressed on (it was, after all, her first day), whether she agreed with the commission's denials.

Daniel J. Stephans, chairman of the Landmarks Commission, hopes Scanlon will feel free to speak her mind. In fact, he considers it essential.

"People are hired in a position like this because they're knowledgeable and experts in a field," Stephans says. "If they don't use that knowledge and expertise, they're not doing their job. If you've got to worry about your job, you can't do your job."

Still, Stephans says, even Rankin "never crossed the mayor" while she held the position. (After retiring, Rankin was a vocal critic of the Edgewater proposal and proposals to limit the Landmarks Commission's authority.)

Stephans says the commission has plenty for Scanlon to do, including updating an inventory of historic property that Rankin compiled 20 years ago.

"What we need is someone to do a whole lot of work that needs to be done," he says, "which as volunteers we're not able to do."

Plant uprooted

Joel Plant, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's neighborhood liaison, this week ended his job with the city. He's leaving (pending final approval) for a job as chief of staff with the Milwaukee Police Department, in his hometown, after five years here.

Plant worked for two years as Madison's alcohol policy coordinator and for the past three years as its neighborhood liaison.

"I've learned a lot of things about process," he reflects, "[such as] who needs to be at the table when you have a proposal. It's a lot easier to be broad at the beginning and then narrow your focus." He urges his replacement to "listen first."

And lash out later. Asked about his soon-to-be-former boss, Plant offers some pointed criticism: "He's a terrible duck hunter. If you are a duck you are very safe when Mayor Dave is around."

Rachel Strauch-Nelson, the mayor's spokeswoman, says he intends to fill Plant's position as soon as possible.

Homeless shelter to get makeover

Epic Systems is donating a large chunk of money to Porchlight Inc. to renovate its emergency men's shelter in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church, on West Washington Avenue, where some homeless people and their advocates have criticized conditions (see "Bleak House," 2/12/2010).

"Epic has proposed to pay for fairly significant renovations for the laundry, kitchen and bathroom," says Steve Schooler, Porchlight executive director, adding that Epic has estimated the total cost at around $140,000. But Bern Tan, an Epic employee, says the exact amount of the donation is unknown because "once you start opening walls to bathrooms, you never know what you're going to find."

Tan says the company was prompted to act by Isthmus' article. "We decided this was really a worthwhile cause, because the folks at Porchlight are doing their best," he says. "We just want to help." H. Krueger & Associates will provide free interior design services, and J.P. Cullen & Sons will provide construction services. [Editor's note: The print edition of the story incorrectly referred to Krueger as an architectural firm.]

Schooler says the renovations won't increase the shelter's capacity, but will greatly improve the space. He hopes work will begin in August and finish by October.

Sober-server law cut off

At its last meeting, the Alcohol License Review Committee voted unanimously to place on file (Madison-speak for "kill") an ordinance that would have banned drinking on the job by restaurant and bar staff (see, 12/10/2009).

The ordinance was originally proposed as a way of keeping restaurant workers clearheaded while dispensing booze. But critics said sampling alcohol is a necessary part of working in a restaurant. Brewmasters must taste the beer they're brewing, and waiters must be able to describe and recommend drinks.

The ALRC's decision still needs Common Council approval. But Madison Ald. Mike Verveer is optimistic his council colleagues "will put this well-intentioned but misguided ordinance to bed."

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