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Madland: To preserve Madison's history, Mansion Hill district might have to go
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The Mansion Hill neighborhood is comprised mostly of student rentals owned by a small number of landlords
The Mansion Hill neighborhood is comprised mostly of student rentals owned by a small number of landlords
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

Dave Cieslewicz, former Madison mayor and fan of big buildings, and Stu Levitan, head of the city's Landmarks Commission and fan of Bob Dylan, are going head-to-head on the future of development in Madison's historic districts. It has been the wonkiest fight of 2014, though the year is still young and the debate over unlicensed livery services is just heating up.

Cieslewicz advocates weakening the Landmarks Commission. After several high-profile development projects have been slowed or stopped by the committee, including the Edgewater Hotel project that may have hurt his reelection bid, Cieslewicz wants changes to streamline the development process to ensure Madison has a denser downtown. As of now, it takes a city council super-majority to override their recommendations; Cieslewicz would reduce that to a simple majority, essentially making the Landmarks Commission a mere advisory board. It takes a simple majority to approve any old project, and under Dave's plan, overriding Landmarks wouldn't be any different.

Levitan wants to keep the Landmarks Commission strong, because no sensible person is going to give up power. More specifically, Stu makes the case that the commission includes experts who may be able to take a longer view of history than some alder who lives on the opposite side of town.

Both of them make good points. I share Dave's frustration that the Landmarks Commission is fighting a proposed development on West Gilman Street that would replace the awful 10-story Highlander apartment building. That building is terrible -- the only historical value it has is if one wants to experience what it would be like to live in Brezhnev-era Soviet housing. And it seems silly to stop the development to save a couple houses in questionable condition.

However, I've seen other projects where the Landmarks Commission has helped foster collaboration between the city and developers. A prime example of such compromise is the 100 block of State Street. The original plan involved some ugly glass buildings -- it was essentially Overture II: The Re-Overturing. But the final version, the result of a compromise with the Frautschis, preserves a decent amount of the historical framework and visually fits in with the neighborhood. As the Hub goes up on the 500 block of State Street, it is nice to see that the top part of the street will still look like State.

I'm not sure if the plans for the 100 block would have gone through if the Landmarks Commission were weaker.

I went back and forth between Dave's and Stu's ideas until I found a worthwhile idea in the most unlikely place -- a message board. I was scoping out The Daily Page Forum (yes, that's a crass plug) and came across a post by the one and only "snoqueen," who is generally one of the smartest and most rational people I've ever seen waste time online.

She wrote:

What if we got honest and dissolved (or reconfigured) the mansion hill one but decided to continue supporting the others, which mostly have worked as intended and raised property values within their boundaries?

(I generally don't enjoy it when writers compile anonymous comments from social media and call it an article. However, when I read this suggestion, I thought it was a legitimately good idea that warranted further discussion.)

The Mansion Hill Local Historic District (PDF), home of Edgewater and Highlander and plenty of rundown houses, is Madison's first historic district, but it may not be practical to give that neighborhood such a distinction anymore.

While other historic districts have a mix of renters and owners, the Mansion Hill neighborhood is comprised mostly of student rentals owned by a small number of landlords. Many of the buildings have historical value, but these structures need upkeep. Many landlords have let their property deteriorate, as tenants' only investment in the long-term health of the property is their security deposit. It is a part of town where frats have thrown "cigarette and greasy garbage" themed parties.

It would be extremely costly to rehab many of those houses, and I just don't see long-term residents moving in, particularly on the campus side of Wisconsin Avenue. When downtown real estate is an extreme premium, these sadly-deteriorated buildings don't preserve the past, they hinder the future.

Perhaps the district can be redrawn, but its current boundaries will keep the Landmarks Commission focused on preserving properties that can't really be saved and fighting battles that hurt its credibility.

Mansion Hill can be our cautionary tale, and the city can focus on making sure landlords in other historic districts don't let their properties fall apart just so they have an excuse to build something new. Madison has a beautiful architectural history, but we need to focus on neighborhoods where preservation is sustainable.

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