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Madison Plan Commission tepid on Block 100 plan
Although the Plan Commission didn't act on the proposal Monday night, it was clear there isn't much support for it.
Although the Plan Commission didn't act on the proposal Monday night, it was clear there isn't much support for it.
Credit:Block 100 Foundation

The controversial redevelopment proposal for the 100 block of State Street got more negative feedback Monday night, this time from one of the city's most powerful non-elected bodies, the Plan Commission.

The commission didn't plan on acting on the proposal, but the public testimony and debate stretched to almost midnight. During the debate, it was clear the developers have not swayed the body.

The $10 million proposal -- by Overture benefactors Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland -- would raze five buildings on the 100 block. These would be replaced with an office building and private plaza, facing across Fairchild Street to the Overture Center. One building, the landmark Castle & Doyle building at 125 State St., would be largely renovated. Other facades on State Street would be either preserved or recreated in a similar style.

But the developers would demolish another city landmark, the Schubert building, 120 W. Mifflin St., and its neighbor, the Stark building at the corner of Mifflin and Fairchild for a private plaza.

The developers have said -- and their representative, George Austin, emphasized last night -- that they'll walk away from the project if they can't have their plaza. Critics say this plaza erodes the block's urban fabric and creates dead space.

City planning staff is opposed (PDF) to the plan, and it faces skepticism from members of the Urban Design Commission. And although the Plan Commission didn't act on the proposal Monday night, it was clear there isn't much support for it.

Three members of the commission said they liked or could be swayed to accept the plan's most controversial element -- the private plaza at the corner. But all the other members of the commission said they are opposed to it.

And they questioned the logic of developers' argument -- in trying to create more activity on the block, they propose demolishing a solid building that could be a viable business and replace it with empty space.

Commissioner Michael Rewey noted that there's only going to be one public entrance on the Fairchild side of the development, while the current buildings have six. "Why would I want to walk on Fairchild if there's only one door?" He also noted that the Fairchild/Stark building, though not a landmark, is unique. "That's a classic urban building," he said. "It's got an entrance on a corner. It's cool. Once you open up that corner, it doesn't look right."

Even more significant is that none of the commission's three alders -- Steve King, Chris Schmidt and Marsha Rummel -- showed any enthusiasm for the plan. To date, no Common Council members have championed the proposal and it seems unlikely to have much support there: especially if a super-majority is needed to overturn a Landmarks Commission decision.

Muddying the picture last night was an alternate vision for the block spearheaded by Stu Levitan, chairman of the Landmarks Commission. Working with an illustrator and architect affiliated with the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, Levitan presented a rendering showing how the block could be redeveloped without razing the Fairchild and Schubert buildings. In Levitan's proposal, he moves the private garden to the middle of the block.

Even the project manager, Austin, conceded it was "a lovely picture, but it's just that, a picture."

Although the commission wasn't there to discuss Levitan's idea, many commissioners had a hard time ignoring it -- each had a copy of the rendering and a large copy was in front of the room. "I wish we weren't looking at this," said Ald. King. "It's really appealing."

In several hours of testimony before the debate, many people spoke for and against the Frautschi/Rowland plan, with those in favor out-numbering those against. In a sign that lobbying for the project is intensifying, many of those who spoke in favor of the project are connected to institutions the Frautschis have supported, including the Overture Center, the Madison Children's Museum, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Madison Public Library Board.

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