A good rule to live by in managing anything is to treat setbacks as opportunities.
So, when the Madison Common Council voted last week not to override a Landmarks Commission decision to kill an important redevelopment project on Mansion Hill, I was disappointed, but I can see a greater good coming out of it.
Simply put, the development approval process in this town badly needs reform. But because this rejection was such a clearly bad result, it could prompt a serious review that has some potential to lead to positive changes. I was very happy to hear that Steve Brown Apartments will not come back with a different proposal for the site, but will instead work to change the process.
Here's what happened in a nutshell. The developer proposed tearing down a late Brezhnev-era Soviet-style bunker of a building on the 100 block of West Gilman Street and otherwise dispatching two old houses that were well beyond their useful life, with the idea of replacing them with three elegant apartment buildings that keyed off the prettiest old building on the block.
The Landmarks Commission rejected the proposal on the grounds that these new buildings would be too big, even though they would be replacing a 10-story building and the houses with three five-story buildings.
The Common Council could have overridden the commission, but it would have taken a supermajority 14 of 20 votes. The project's supporters only had six.
How could something this nonsensical happen? We'll leave aside the individuals involved, and focus on the systemic problems. The Soviet-style building is being preserved by a Soviet-style process: decisions are made by a handful of people who are difficult to identify and impossible to hold accountable.
Here's what needs to be changed.
The Landmarks Commission can only look at the narrow issue of whether or not the proposal fits the neighborhood. This is a subjective judgment, of course, but since most old buildings are smaller than the new ones being proposed, it creates a built-in prejudice against proposed developments. The standard that new buildings must be "visually compatible" with the existing ones should be eliminated.
Once the commission makes a ruling, it takes a supermajority of the council to override it. This is undemocratic. A handful of unelected individuals can make a decision based on the narrow consideration of historic preservation, and it takes a supermajority of the elected representatives of the people to overturn them. This puts way too much power in the hands of people we can't hold accountable through elections. The council should be able to override with a simple majority.
Even if an override gets to the council for a vote, alders are restricted to deciding the issue on the narrow grounds of whether the commission ruling creates an undue hardship for the developer. But elected policymakers should be able to weigh the costs and benefits of a project based on what's best for the entire city in the long run. For example, even if an alder believed that the buildings were a little too big, they should have the option to conclude that the benefits of removing an even bigger ugly building and the added tax base should trump that concern. This straitjacket should be removed, and the council should be able to override the Landmarks Commission based on broad policy considerations.
Finally, we could solve all these problems by simply making Landmarks Commission findings advisory to the council. The council could then take the information that Landmarks provides and factor it into their decision-making process. Alders who feel very strongly about historic preservation might still vote against a project, while those who look at it differently might vote for it. In this way, those elected to represent us could make informed decisions based on what they believe is best for the entire community.
The Mansion Hill saga is a near-term loss for the city. But if it results in reforms that reinstate democracy and allow for the best interests of the broader community, it could lead to a much better process.