Not Over Yet
December 1, 2009 5:24 PM
It would dramatically improve public access and public views to the lake. It would create 1,000 construction jobs at a time when one out of three workers in some trades is unemployed. It would produce over $1 million in new tax revenues per year. And it might not happen because a handful of unelected people on one committee think the building is too big.
Last night's Landmarks Commission decision to not approve the Edgewater Hotel project reveals a broken City approval process that needs to be fixed. It's broken in two fundamental ways.
First, the commission could only look at a very narrow question, which was essentially: does the size of the proposed building detract from the historic district? That is an entirely subjective decision. When I look at the drawings provided by the developer, I don't see it as too big. But what really makes the case for me is the model provided by the opponents of the Edgewater themselves. When I look at that model, I see a building that fits in with its site. Some people on the Landmarks Commission just looked at the same information differently. But regardless of how you feel about it, nobody was allowed to take into account any of the bigger, more important issues than the relatively less significant question of the size of the building.
Second, under our ordinances, the decision of a handful of unelected individuals on the Landmarks Commission can only be overturned by a supermajority (14) of the twenty elected representatives of the people on the Madison City Council. This is fundamentally undemocratic.
I am not necessarily placing blame on the Landmarks Commissioners. While I disagree with their subjective judgment, they were trying to follow the hazy prescriptions of the ordinance. I do think they erred significantly in that effort by interpreting the language of the ordinance with regard to "buildings directly affected by the project" to mean all buildings in the historic district. How can a building which is blocks away be directly affected by this project? And by the standards of the immediately surrounding buildings, I see this building as being compatible.
Second, the landmarks ordinance itself makes it clear that the commission can grant a project greater flexibility and imagination if it substantially complies with the basic intent of the ordinance. The Edgewater project does that in two ways. Most commissioners agreed it complies with four of the five criteria required for approval. In addition, by restoring the 1940s Edgewater Hotel, restoring the view of Lake Mendota and creating a public plaza for all to enjoy, the project advances other portions of the landmarks ordinance.
Lastly, even the opponents of the Edgewater concede that under these standards the revered Kennedy Manor apartment building could not have been built.
In the long run, we need to reform this process. In the short run, I hope that the developer will ask the City Council to make the final decision on this. There is just too much at stake for the Council not to have the final say.