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Left behind

By: Rick Benedict//June 27, 2011//

Left behind

By: Rick Benedict//June 27, 2011//

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Remnants of Madison’s past are at odds with plans for future development

A Cousins sub shop operates out of a three-story house at 1221 W. Johnson in Madison, surrounded by large, newer buildings on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The Cousins property is a remnant of the area’s old look, once defined more by neighborhoods of two- and three-story houses. The area is now transitioning to larger buildings per city development plans. The Steensland House (inset, page 6) at 315 Carroll St. in Madison is another property at odds with plans for future development. (Photos by Kevin Harnack)

In Madison, where construction cranes crisscross the skyline, buildings are stretching toward the clouds, led by an influx of high-rise residential and University of Wisconsin buildings.

“There’s an area — Johnson Street and Gorham Street by Bassett (Street) — where a number of newer, taller student apartment buildings were built in the last decade,” said Bill Fruhling, the city’s principal planner.

The growth reflects Madison’s attempt to usher in large buildings to neighborhoods once defined by two- and three-story houses.

“The plans for that area were for more dense, bigger buildings,” Fruhling said.

Plans, though, don’t come to fruition overnight. University Avenue, for instance, reveals a long row of urban high-rises, but it also brings drivers to 1221 W. ?Johnson, where a Cousins sub shop awkwardly operates out of a three-story house.

In the midst of much larger buildings, the sandwich shop looks like an orphaned ambassador to a neighborhood long since phased out.

“I pass that on my way to work every day, and I often reflect on, ‘Boy, how long can that building stay standing without it falling to some larger development?’” said Stu Levitan, a historian and member of Madison’s Landmarks Commission, which has jurisdiction over the city’s landmark sites and historic districts.

Levitan and his panel are charged with preserving Madison’s historic buildings and neighborhoods, insofar as that preservation is consistent with the city’s long-term plan.

While some people suggest the Landmarks Commission stands in the way of development — former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz was one such critic after the panel blocked redevelopment of the Edgewater Hotel — it also considers contextual relevance. In other words, the committee doesn’t always preserve a building just because it’s old.

In the case of Cousins, Levitan said, no one is advocating for the structure to be demolished or moved. But, he added, if such a proposal came down the pike, there wouldn’t be many complaints.

“That Cousins is pretty much without any kind of historic context at this point, surrounded by parking lots and large university buildings,” Levitan said. “It’s a quaint building to still have there, but I can’t imagine there’d be much of an outcry to save it if somebody came by with a meaningful proposal for a full-block solution of either university housing or a university building.”

Don Morello, the franchise owner, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Steensland House at 315 Carroll St. is in the parking lot of Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison.  Church leaders want to move the house to make way for a 150,000-square-foot expansion project.

The Landmarks Commission was created during the 1970s to combat the demolition of old buildings that were in good condition and still fit well with their neighborhoods.

Stu Levitan, member of Madison’s Landmarks Commission, stands downtown near the Capitol.

In one instance, Levitan said, the city allowed the demolition of a historic building to make way for a fast-food restaurant on University Avenue.

Landmarks, though, serves to protect such buildings, even when preservation runs counter to the wishes of a building’s owner.

The Steensland House, at 315 Carroll St., is in the parking lot of Bethel Lutheran Church. The Victorian Queen Ann-style structure, built in 1896, neither fits into its surroundings nor Bethel’s plans. Church leaders want to move the house to make way for a 150,000-square-foot expansion project.

The house, though, is a registered historic landmark, and the only way the city would approve Bethel’s expansion would be for the church to move the Steensland House to a new lot in the neighborhood. There have been no takers so far, halting Bethel’s plans for a new church building and recreation center that would fill the entire block.

“We’ve had very thorough design studies, and we don’t see a way to use it within any context,” said Peder Moren, a member of the urban site committee for Bethel, and the point person in moving the Steensland House. “That’s why we’ve been trying to find a good home for it.”

While there’s little argument the Cousins is out of place on Johnson Street, opinions are divided regarding the Steensland House. Fruhling, the city’s principal planner, said the house is fine where it is.

“I would disagree the context of the neighborhood around it has evolved so it’s out of place,” Fruhling said. “That immediate context on that same side of the street has disappeared, but if you look right across the street and in some adjoining blocks to the north, there’s a lot of houses in that area as part of the Mansion Hill Historic District.”

Disagreements on buildings that stand in the way of projects many agree would benefit the city show why historic preservation can be so contentious, said Dawn O’Kroley, an architect and member of the city’s Urban Design Commission, which focuses on building aesthetics.

“That’s probably one of the most challenging things to look at in the broader context,” she said. “There’s personal preference in terms of what people like in buildings.”

Nonetheless, she said, the benefits of getting decisions right justify the often painstaking Madison development process.

“There’s something to be said,” O’Kroley said, “when buildings have architectural dialogue with their neighbors. It makes it a stronger sense of place.”

If someone now wanted to build a house-like structure for a restaurant among 10- and 15-story buildings, the project would have no hope for approval. But, Fruhling said, Madison is in no hurry to purge the old buildings that no longer fit.

“There are a lot of quirky things that seem out of place across the city — and in every city, actually — that you probably look at and wonder how it got there,” Fruhling said. “I think they’re usually long-standing uses that were legal at the time they were put in place and may or may not be legal now.

“I don’t know if that Cousins sub shop meets all current codes.”

Such buildings, Fruhling added, “were just grandfathered in. They can continue to exist until something happens to change our status or another use is purposed.”

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