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Madison commission faces power outage (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

Madison created and empowered its Landmarks Commission in the wake of a controversial construction project 38 years ago.

Another controversial project might prompt the city to take that power away.

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said he wants city staff next year to review and update the city’s landmarks ordinance to strip the commission of its authority to reject construction projects in historic districts. The commission is designed to protect the integrity of historic buildings and historic districts in the city.

“I’m not criticizing the commissioners,” he said. “I truly believe they’re trying to do the best with an unclear ordinance. But I think legitimate issues have been raised about transparency and accountability.”

The commission earlier this month rejected a certificate of appropriateness for an estimated $93 million renovation of the Edgewater Hotel, blaming, primarily, the project’s size and compatibility with nearby buildings in a historic district.

Brookfield-based project developer Hammes Co. appealed the decision to the Common Council, which needs a two-thirds majority to overturn the commission ruling.

That’s too much power for a commission without elected members, Cieslewicz said.

Until 1997, the Common Council could not reverse a commission decision. According to the city’s Web site, the council created the commission in 1971 after a developer tore down a sandstone farmhouse to build a Burger King.

For the next 26 years, a developer’s only recourse against a commission ruling was a court appeal, said Kitty Rankin, the city’s former preservation planner.

“In 1997, the city was working on its new downtown plan and decided there needed to be someone to appeal to besides the courts,” she said. “So they decided on a supermajority of the Common Council.”

Ledell Zellers said the Edgewater appeal is the first instance she can recall in which the supermajority has come into play.

“In most cases, I think there’s some level of understanding that you need the commission’s approval before moving on,” said Zellers, past president of downtown neighborhood association Capitol Neighborhoods Inc.

Madison developer Curt Brink backs the mayor’s move. CNI, he said, represents two of the city’s five historic districts, and the neighborhood association stonewalls developers.

“As a developer, you just basically say, ‘Screw it,’” he said. “And I think Bob (Dunn, Hammes president) was at that point after the Landmarks Commission decision. They appealed because the city asked, but really, nobody’s willing to put up the fight.

“You get into these arguments about what’s historic, and people forget just because something’s old doesn’t make it historic.”

But Zellers said she trusts the commission members who enforce the ordinance.

“Without it, I think developers are just going to steamroll their way into all kinds of new buildings,” she said. “I’m not saying new buildings shouldn’t be built in historic districts, but they have to make sense.”

The mayor appoints the seven members of the commission, said Chairman Dan Stephans, who also is the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s historic preservationist.

“I have no desire to stop someone in their tracks,” he said. “I’m not seeking the power to kill projects. That’s not what I’m there for. I just deal with the tools I’m given.”

But deciding the fate of a project, particularly a controversial one, should be left to those who answer to the voters, Cieslewicz said.

“I wouldn’t support eliminating the ordinance or the commission,” he said. “I just think it should be advisory.

“The Common Council and I are accountable. If people have a problem with how we vote on a project, they can contact us. And if they don’t like the decision, they can make that point at election time.”

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