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Citizen Dave: Mansion Hill is the victim of historic preservation
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Mansion Hill is in worse shape than it was thirty years ago.
Mansion Hill is in worse shape than it was thirty years ago.
Credit:Bing

The Madison Common Council will vote tonight on a motion to overturn a ruling of the Landmarks Commission blocking the redevelopment of three buildings in the Mansion Hill neighborhood.

The council should do that, and then it should take a hard look at the entire ordinance, but I won't rehash those arguments here. Instead, let's step back and take a broader perspective. Let's look at two downtown neighborhoods. I've lived in them both.

Mansion Hill is directly north of the Capitol alongside Lake Mendota. The neighborhood was home to the original Yankee settlers of the city, and it still has a few grand mansions from that era. The Bassett neighborhood lies just west and south of the Square. It has more of a working class history.

Both neighborhoods were at about the same level of neglect and disrepair when I lived in each during the 1980s. But walk around them today and you'll see a world of difference. Bassett has been transformed. Old houses that had reached the end of their useful lives were torn down and replaced by much more dense and attractive apartment buildings and condos. Some funky local businesses have followed.

Even the Echo Tap on Bedford Street serves much better food these days. My buddies and I sometimes play sheepshead there. I always enjoy coming out of the Echo after losing yet again and taking in the sight of the new attractive apartment buildings across the street that replaced the tired, low slung Badger Bus depot. Yes, the city should have an inter-city bus terminal, but the old Badger station was awful and needed to go.

Now walk around Mansion Hill. Except for some new fraternity buildings on Langdon Street and the new Edgewater, if anything it's in worse shape than it was thirty years ago. Very little has changed, except that the old buildings are older and in even worse shape. There has been little in the way of reinvestment.

A big part of the problem for Mansion Hill is that it is an historic district. That leads to all kinds of added regulation and just plain bizarreness like the Landmarks Commission's ruling that would result in the preservation of a ten-story bunker of an apartment building on West Gilman Street. It's a huge disincentive to revitalization, and it shows in the shabbiness of the neighborhood.

But a few blocks away in Bassett, which has escaped the curse of being designated historic, the neighborhood has been dramatically improved.

They say that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again but to expect a different result. For four decades, the city has kept Mansion Hill in a historic district, and the results have been dismal. To keep doing the same thing is madness.

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