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Friday, August 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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In defense of the Madison Landmarks Commission
We simply followed the law in rejecting a Mansion Hill development

In the March 6 edition of Isthmus, former mayor Dave Cieslewicz attacked Madison's Landmarks Commission over our rejection of Steve Brown Apartments' massive three-building complex at 115-127 W. Gilman St. Brown proposes tearing down the 10-story Highlander apartments, moving or eliminating two student rental houses adjacent to it, and replacing them with three brownstone buildings.

Cieslewicz's column was filled with bad information, bad analysis and bad faith. He's wrong on the facts, the policy and the law.

He's wrong from his opening declaration that the "primary question" is whether the new buildings would be better than what they're replacing. The commission is a quasi-judicial body, so the primary question -- the only question -- is whether the facts of an application meet the law of the ordinance. Not whether somebody thinks something is "better" than what's there now.

When the Common Council created the Mansion Hill Historic District in 1976 -- the first such district in Wisconsin -- it set five criteria for new construction. The first listed was "the gross volume of any new structure shall be visually compatible with the buildings and environment" within 200 feet. That's been the law for 38 years -- as Steve Brown, the primary owner of property in the district, well knows.

The remaining buildings in that "visually related area" have an average gross volume of about 50,000 cubic feet, and range from two and a half to three and a half stories. Each of the new buildings would be at least 250,000 cubic feet, and four and a half or five stories (up to 62 feet). The Highlander, at 92.5 feet, has about 320,000 cubic feet.

So Cieslewicz isn't quite right -- each building would be about two-thirds as tall as the Highlander. And each would also have more than two-thirds its volume. And there would be three of them, giving this project more gross volume than two Highlanders.Hard to give credit for removing the Highlander when the replacement has more than twice the volume.

That's why we said no. Not to save the Highlander or the old rooming house at 127 W. Gilman or the 1886 vernacular Queen Anne at 123 W. Gilman. Simply because the volume of the new construction was so wildly incompatible with its immediate environment.

Far from abusing our position, we did exactly what the council created us to do -- stop projects that are too big for the historic district.

I also take issue with Cieslewicz's comment that the commission denied the permit because it "apparently wants to punish Brown for what it contends is demolition by neglect on one of the houses," the rooming house at 127 W. Gilman. I resent the implication that the commission would use extralegal motivation in our deliberations.

Regarding this demolition-by-neglect, Cieslewicz acknowledges that "it would be unfortunate if that were the case," but that "it shouldn't affect the outcome." But the law says it should. In order to stop demolition-by-neglect, the council specified that a building's deteriorated condition "cannot qualify as a basis" for demolition when the condition is due to the owner's failure "to maintain the property."

I agree the old rooming house is so distressed it appears not economically feasible to restore and maintain it. But that's because Steve Brown Apartments spent so little on maintenance when the building was occupied (1994-2002), and even less since it's been vacant. Enforcement orders were referred for prosecution, and an inspector stated at the hearing that Steve Brown Apartments was indeed "materially responsible" for the condition. Yes, Dave, that should affect the outcome -- that's why it's the law.

I am also troubled by Cieslewicz's highly selective outrage that it takes a two-thirds vote by the council to reverse or modify a commission action. He calls this "undemocratic" because commissioners are "unaccountable to the voters," and says we should be only advisory. The former mayor should remember that plan commissioners aren't elected either, and they have far broader and greater power than we do -- and it takes the same two-thirds vote for the council to reverse or modify their actions as well. So why has Cieslewicz never called for the Plan Commission to be advisory?

Making us advisory would defeat the purpose of a quasi-judicial commission and substantially increase the council's workload. It's a bad idea and should be rejected.

Cieslewicz concludes by celebrating density. He must not know that the project is actually less dense, cutting the number of residents from 214 in affordable units to 60 one- and two-bedroom "condo-level" high-end student rentals.

But downtown's housing problem isn't too many affordable units and too few luxury student rentals. So not only does this project clearly violate the Landmarks Ordinance, it does so to support poor housing policy.

Landmarks commissioners -- most of whom were initially appointed by Mayor Cieslewicz -- believe in the many benefits of historic preservation and the need to uphold the ordinance the council adopted. It doesn't appear Citizen Dave shares either commitment.

Stu Levitan is chair of the Madison Landmarks Commission.

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