The Block 100 Foundation drew a line in the sand Wednesday with a letter to Madison's Urban Design Commission, stating if they cannot tear down the historic landmark Schubert Building and its neighbor, the Fairchild Building, they will abandon the project and sell the buildings.
The letter (PDF), signed by Overture benefactors Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland, as well as Jerome's son, Grant, says the private garden plaza proposed for where the Schubert and Fairchild Buildings (120 and 122 W. Mifflin St.) now stand is the most important part of the project for them.
"We have consistently stated how important the design of the Fairchild and Mifflin corner is to the Block 100 Foundation and we have compromised on other elements of the project in our desire to find a path forward," the letter states. "In the event that the Urban Design Commission is unwilling to support the design, however, the Block 100 Foundation is prepared to step aside and sell the six buildings. While we believe this outcome would be a lost opportunity for the city on many levels, the Block 100 Foundation is prepared to do so and to allow some other party to implement an alternative vision."
Selling the six buildings would certainly involve a significant financial loss -- they've been purchased for about $7.5 million, roughly double their assessed value. The developers have been buying up the buildings in secret over the past decade.
The letter was met with disappointment. "I'm mildly surprised at the timing and tone of the letter," says Ald. Mike Verveer, whose district includes the project. He says that city planning staff have been trying to meet with the developers to share ideas about the project, to no success. Project manager George Austin could not be reached for comment yesterday.The project calls for five buildings on the 100 block of State Street to be demolished for an office building and private plaza facing Fairchild, across from the Overture Center. Building facades on State Street would be reconstructed. The historic Castle & Doyle Building, 125 State St., Would be largely preserved and renovated.
While many city officials are comfortable with proposed changes to State Street, they are squeamish about plans to demolish the Schubert Building, 120 W. Mifflin St., and Fairchild Building, 122 W. Mifflin St. City staff also oppose the plans. Neither the Landmarks nor UDC have yet to vote on the project, but both have expressed reservations in meetings (they are both scheduled to discuss it again next week). The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation also is opposed.
If the Landmarks Commission rejects the proposal to demolish the Schubert Building, Verveer says he doesn't think two-thirds of the council would vote to overturn it, as what happened with the Edgewater Hotel project. "As of today, it just doesn't seem like a two-thirds majority is possible," he said. "Each of my colleagues wants to get to a position where we can support the proposal with some modifications. But there doesn't seem to be a high level of comfort with the proposed redevelopment."
He adds that council would like to avoid a bruising Edgewater-style fight. "I think I speak for all my colleagues when I say we desperately want to avoid that."
Dick Wagner, chairman of the UDC, is more hopeful. While admitting that some UDC members are uncomfortable with the current proposal, he says others like it.
"I think members of Urban Design are open to having the corner be an open space," he says. He isn't surprised that the developers are pushing the matter, asking for a quick up-or-down vote on their plans.
"They're proposing something," Wagner says. "They have a right to say what they think is important about their proposal. Clarity actually helps in this case."
Verveer agrees that the developers have that right. "I wish they'd take their foot off the gas pedal a little and give us time to have further conversations," he says. "It's their right to want a quick verdict. But I don't know that rushing this is in anybody's best interest."