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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 1.0° F  Fair
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The Madison Landmarks Commission is hurting the city
The good cause of historic preservation has gone off the rails
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The primary question in any urban redevelopment proposal is this: Is the new building better than what it's replacing?

That's always a subjective question. But when it comes to the proposal to take down an ugly concrete bunker of a building on the 100 block of West Gilman Street, this shouldn't even be a close call.

Developer Steve Brown is proposing to tear down the awful 10-story Highlander apartments and move or eliminate two student rental houses adjacent to it. He would replace them with three attractive five-story brick buildings.

But the Madison Landmarks Commission rejected the proposal recently. It believes that the massing of the buildings is too big, and it apparently wants to punish Brown for what it contends is demolition by neglect on one of the houses.

Let's take up the massing issue first. The new buildings would be only one story taller than the existing Elms apartment building, which has been on Gilman Street for almost a century and would become the neighbor to the new buildings. And those buildings will be half the height of the Highlander, which would go away.

That block should be evolving away from small houses to bigger, more dense buildings anyway, just as the Bassett Neighborhood has moved very successfully in that direction in recent years.

As for the demolition-by-neglect charge, it would be unfortunate if that were the case, but it shouldn't affect the outcome. Even if the house in question was in great condition, there's nothing special about its architecture or its history.

So, a terrible apartment building and two rundown houses would get knocked down or moved and replaced by three nice brick buildings that key off the prettiest old building on the block. What's being proposed is much better than what it's replacing.

The fact that this is even a controversy at all illustrates just how far the good cause of historic preservation has gone off the rails.

Many date the modern historic preservation movement to 1963 and the failed fight to preserve Penn Station in New York. That beautiful old building was replaced with the ugly new Madison Square Garden. Nobody who looks at a picture of the old building and compares it with what was built to replace it would conclude that this wasn't a tragic mistake.

Because every community in America has examples of similar if less spectacular tragedies, it was appropriate to develop laws to protect iconic buildings and the history that went with them.

But in Madison the movement has moved way beyond just protecting high-profile historic buildings. It has become increasingly esoteric and arrogant.

The Gilman Street project is just the most current example. Too often historic preservation is used as the excuse to just stop taller buildings. Because the historic preservation ordinance allows the Landmarks Commission to consider the impact new buildings would have on a historic district, just about any building that is larger than a few stories could be considered not in keeping with the district.

This might still be all right if the commissioners didn't have so much power. But when the commission refuses to issue a certificate of appropriateness, it pretty much stops a project in its tracks. It takes a supermajority vote of the Common Council to overrule them, which has happened only once. This is undemocratic because the commissioners are unelected and therefore unaccountable to the voters. It shouldn't take an extraordinary vote of the elected representatives of the people to overrule unelected commissioners.

Moreover, while historic preservation is important, it is seldom the only consideration. Even if there were a legitimate historic preservation issue in the Gilman Street case, that should be weighed against the demolition of an eyesore, the added quality housing and the increased tax base. The Landmarks Commission isn't charged with taking into account the broader picture, so it should not be the de facto decision-maker on any project. That should be left to responsible, accountable elected officials whose job it is to weigh all of the public policy issues involved.

To solve this problem, Landmarks Commission rulings on the appropriateness of a project should be advisory to the Common Council, not binding.

This will not be a popular proposal among Madison's historic preservation community. Historic preservation, especially in Madison, has taken on almost religious overtones. To question how it is currently practiced or to suggest that other community values should sometimes trump it brings scalding criticism.

But cities need to change, to grow, to become more dense. That's what makes a city a city. If you want low density and stasis, well, that's what suburbs are for.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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