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Madison commission faces hotel fallout (UPDATE)

The proposed Edgewater Hotel development started Madison's push to update its landmarks ordinance. (Rendering courtesy of city of Madison)

The proposed Edgewater Hotel development started Madison's push to update its landmarks ordinance. (Rendering courtesy of city of Madison)

By Paul Snyder

The ongoing Edgewater Hotel debate could lead Madison to clip its Landmarks Commission’s authority over project approvals.

That might be the best approach as long as the cut in power is within reason, said Dan Stephans, commission chairman. He said he would support a change to the city’s landmarks ordinance that would give the Common Council final say on renovation or new construction projects that exceed a certain amount of money.

“We do it at the state level right now — if a project is more than $5 million, the state Building Commission has to approve it,” said Stephans, an architect and the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s historic preservationist. “But I want to be able to make informed, intelligent recommendations before we’re subjected to a political knee-jerk reaction.”

The commission on Nov. 30 refused a certificate of appropriateness for the estimated $93 million Edgewater Hotel redevelopment based on the project’s size and compatibility with nearby buildings in a historic district.

The decision sparked Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to call for an ordinance update to strip the commission of its authority to reject construction projects in historic districts.

Created in 1971, the Landmarks Commission always has been able to reject projects if they are considered by commissioners a threat to the historic integrity of one of the city’s 178 landmarks or five historic districts. In 1997, the city changed its landmarks ordinance to require a supermajority, or 14 votes, from the Common Council to overturn a commission ruling.

Since then, said Rebecca Cnare, Madison’s interim historic preservation planner, the only developer to appeal a commission decision was Brookfield-based Hammes Co. for the Edgewater.

“The Common Council can decide to do whatever it likes if it feels our review process can be more efficient,” Cnare said. “They can take our ordinance and change whatever they like.”

Some council members want to unplug the commission.

“I always say if you have elected officials, then they should be the final arbitrator in these types of decisions,” said Alderman Michael Schumacher. Landmarks Commission members “can give their rationale and voice their opinion on a project, but the buck stops with the council,” he said.

But commission member Stu Levitan, a local historian, said the Landmarks Commission typically reviews minor building projects, such as window or door replacements and house re-siding. He said the Common Council cannot make all those decisions.

“So the question becomes: Do you have a different standard for one kind of project and not another?” he said. “If so, how do you write that into an ordinance?”

That’s the question the Landmarks Commission will try to answer in the next few months as it works to update the city’s ordinance. The commission at its March 22 meeting will lay out a plan and timeline for how to update the city’s ordinance.

According to Cnare, the commission reviews up to 100 projects each year and only three or four involve new construction or major redevelopment.

“And it’s not like we don’t approve any of the big things that come our way,” she said, adding the commission recently approved additions to Meriter Hospital, construction of a new building at Williamson and Baldwin streets, and the downtown conversion of the American Tobacco Warehouses into apartments.

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