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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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What should Madison do with its student-housing eyesores?
The 'big uglies'
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Steve Brown Apartments wanted to demolish the Highlander, built in 1968, for a new apartment project.
Credit:Joe Tarr

Brett Eby is not fond of the Highlander, the 10-story apartment building at 121 W. Gilman St., which he has called home for the past year.

"It's overpriced for what you get," he says.

His main complaint is that the building isn't very efficient, and he can't control the heat. "It's always super hot."

Eby wound up in the apartment last August because "I just waited too long to find an apartment and this was all that was left." He's graduating from the UW this year and won't be renewing.

Steve Brown Apartments, which owns the Highlander, had proposed tearing it down and replacing it with three modern apartment buildings. But the Landmarks Commission rejected the new buildings as being too large for the neighborhood. An appeal in April to the Common Council was unsuccessful in overturning the decision. Steve Brown Apartments has said it won't do anything with the building until the city revises its regulations for the historic district.

Eby isn't alone in disliking the Highlander. Many who have never set foot inside deride the building as one of the city's "big uglies."

Definitions vary, but the term generally refers to the large student apartment buildings constructed out of concrete, cinder block or brick in the '60s and '70s. The buildings are dispersed around the Mansion Hill, Langdon Street, Regent Street, Mifflin and Bassett neighborhoods. They dwarf the smaller homes and older brick apartment buildings around them. Some are high-rises, while others are horizontal big uglies -- three- or four-story buildings that stretch out as much as a half-block.

Ald. Scott Resnick calls the 13-story apartment building where he lives -- "The Surf" at 661 Mendota Court -- a big ugly.

Although he likes his building, with its gorgeous view of the lake and great location, Resnick admits that the big uglies are kind of, well, ugly. "They're concrete, not a lot of intricate design work."

Looking out his window he spots at least four other big uglies. Three are owned by Steve Brown Apartments: The Highlander; a nine-story building at 126 Langdon St. (which is currently vacant); and the 10-story Henry Gilman Apartments, 501 N. Henry St. Resnick can also see the 12-story Round House Apartments, 626 Langdon St., which is managed by CHT Apartment Rentals.

Ald. Mike Verveer, who has several big uglies in his district, says in the '60s and '70s, the city encouraged the style, which included large parking lots in front of the building.

"The planners' perspective was that once neighborhoods constructed several of these they could share the backyard green space," he says.

During the '90s, some of the buildings became magnets for drug dealing and prostitution, Verveer says, until the police cracked down.

The Downtown Plan doesn't use the term "big ugly," but it notes there are several developments "that are much larger in height and/or mass than other buildings in their vicinity and that architecturally do not contribute positively to the character of the surrounding area." It recommends allowing these buildings to be demolished and replaced by buildings that are as tall or even taller, provided they are more attractive.

But Resnick says there hasn't been much discussion -- among the city, neighborhoods, the UW and developers -- as to what those new buildings might look like. But, he adds, "As some of the wounds heal from the Highlander debate, I'd like to see these conversations begin."

Solid as a rock

Resnick wouldn't be sad to see the big uglies go. "At this point, they've pretty much outlived their useful lifespan," he says. "They're difficult to rent."

He adds: "Luckily my big ugly has been kept up over the past 50 years, but someday it will probably have to come down."

Verveer is no fan either, but he notes one benefit of the big uglies: They're the most affordable units around, especially compared to the new luxury housing being built. "The apartment rents these new buildings are asking is unbelievable," he says. "The least expensive apartment is about $1,000 a month."

Leigh Mollenhoff does not like the idea of razing sturdy buildings. She and her husband, Madison historian David Mollenhoff, own an older, much more charming apartment building, the Elms (with screened-in porches and working fireplaces), next to the Highlander. She didn't care for the Highlander when it was built in 1968 but says it'd be wasteful to tear it down now after only a few decades.

"I'm a preservationist and conservationist," she says. "It seems extravagant to throw away a building."

This is especially true, she says, since many of the big uglies are "solid as a rock…. I don't join the chorus for getting rid of existing buildings that were pretty well built."

During the debate over the Highlander's fate, Mollenhoff argued that the building would be a perfect candidate to renovate as "micro-apartments," which have become trendy in big cities. Micro-apartments are efficiencies with 150 to 350 square feet of space.

"They're being built and converted all over the country, as a perfect solution for single people who want to have their own apartment and need something affordable," Mollenhoff says.

'It does the job'

One 77-year-old man -- who would not give his name -- has lived in a big ugly for 43 years. Isthmus questioned the man, who is an editor at the UW-Madison, as he entered the Henry Gilman Apartments on a recent afternoon. He moved into a first-floor efficiency there about two years after the building was constructed in 1968. At the time, the market was becoming saturated with these apartment towers.

Thousands of students have come and gone over the years, the man says, but he has stayed in his unit. The other units have been modernized -- getting breakfast bars and microwaves -- but his has remained the same as when it was built. "When I needed a new refrigerator, I got one," he says. "When I needed a new stove, I got one."

He never considered moving into a renovated unit. "I've got more than 600 books in my studio," he says. "Moving is not something I'd want to do."

He was in his 30s when he moved in and liked the convenience of being able to walk to work and everything he needed. "Although, over the years, so much has moved away from me. Everything has moved out to the malls. Even the health care has moved away."

He remembers a proposal to beautify the building in the 1980s with a mural on the Gilman Street side. The painting never happened -- instead, the owner at the time (there have been several over the years) planted trees.

The man doesn't mind the students. "I live on the first floor. It's not a party floor," he says. "The students generally ignore me. I'm the old guy. Not that I'm mean. But they're young, they're always on the move. That's fine with me."

What does he think of his home being known as a big ugly?

"Who cares? Aesthetically, it's not a great piece of architecture, but it does the job."

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