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Madison City Council's Refusal to Overturn Landmark Commission's Decision
Blocks Proposed $93 million Edgewater Hotel Project, Madison, Wisconsin

By Dean Mosiman, The Wisconsin State JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Dec. 16, 2009--The proposed $93 million redevelopment of the historic Edgewater Hotel may be dead.

After nine hours of testimony and debate, the Madison City Council early Wednesday narrowly refused to overturn a Landmarks Commission decision that has effectively blocked the project.

The council, which has never reversed a Landmarks Commission decision, struggled with the choice but ultimately found the Hammes Co. did not face a hardship in trying to redevelop the property under the landmarks ordinance.

The council needed a 14-vote supermajority of 20 members to overturn the commission. The final vote -- 12 to overturn, five against and three absent -- was cast at about 5:15 a.m.

But the project still could have life. Any of the council members who missed the meeting could ask for reconsideration, or Hammes could reshape its proposal and try again for Landmarks Commission approval.

Hammes President Robert Dunn, who had earlier described the current proposal as a best and last effort, declined comment after the meeting.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who strongly supported the project and overturning the commission, did not speak at the meeting.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," the mayor said after the vote. "There's a good chance if we had 20 members present we could have had 14 votes.

The mayor said the appeal failed because the council had to stick to the landmarks ordinance and couldn't act as policy makers.

The council also refused a proposal by Ald. Lauren Cnare, 3rd District, to delay a vote on Hammes' appeal. A delay, Cnare said, would have let the regular review process continue and give the Plan and Urban Design Commissions a chance to shape the project and address the Landmarks Commission's concerns.

Dunn wants to renovate the original art moderne-style hotel, reduce the height and create a public plaza atop a 1970s addition that would overlook Lake Mendota, build a staircase to the waterfront and erect an eight-story hotel tower.

The Landmarks Commission, which considered the project because it's in the Mansion Hill Historic District, had voted 5-2 that the tower is not compatible with buildings in a 200-foot radius. The commission also voted 5-2 against a variance from the standard.

Hammes appealed the decision to the council, arguing that the commission didn't consider the purpose of the landmarks ordinance, which speaks to preserving and enhancing the city's cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history.

In deciding the appeal, the council refused a motion by Ald. Bridget Maniaci, 2nd District, that said special conditions of the property created constraints that caused serious hardships for the owner, which were not self-created. The motion also said the considerable public interest in preserving the property, especially the original hotel, will be frustrated if the project isn't done.

"This really is in the spirit of the overall intent of the (landmarks) ordinance," said Maniaci, who represents the site and sits on the Landmarks Commission.

The vote was cast amid fears Dunn would drop the project rather than revise it, and council members asked Dunn not to walk away.

"We are not killing this project," said Ald. Brian Solomon, 10th District, who implored Dunn and Hammes to find a way to move ahead. "Every person in this room wants to see this happen. The only thing that kills this project is the developer walking away."

Several council members voiced frustration at how the process has unfolded and of criticisms aimed at the Landmarks Commission and ordinance.

"It breaks my heart the way this project has gone and the damage it has done to the city and this body," said Ald. Satya-Rhodes-Conway, 12th District.

Before the meeting, Cieslewicz had described the city's review process as "deeply flawed" because it gave members of an unelected commission the power to kill a project that can create jobs, open new access to the waterfront and produce tax revenues.

More than 50 people testified on the appeal and speakers revealed a fault line between preservation and growth.

The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation asked the council not to overturn a Landmarks Commission decision for the first time in 40 years while the city's Economic Development Committee voiced support for the project

During testimony, Dunn told the council that blocking the project will let a precious asset deteriorate in one of the most important sites Downtown, and that the proposal is his best effort at a redevelopment that's financially feasible.

Dunn said his company has already invested more than $1 million and thousands of hours in studying and planning the redevelopment, and that the size of the project can't be further reduced.

"I can't find a feasible alternative," he said. "The great irony of this project is that the project is the path to preservation."

But members of a neighborhood steering committee said Dunn has flouted city processes and zoning rules, that any hardships are self created, and that the council should not overturn the commission's decision.

"It's kind of making a mess of how we usually do things around here," steering committee member Fred Mohs said.

Dunn knew the Edgewater site is in a historic district and made a "calculated risk" in pursuing the project, member Ledell Zellers added.

Katherine Rankin, the city's former historic preservation planner, said overturning the commission would have meant "the most critical criteria in our landmarks ordinance doesn't have to be followed anymore."

Downtown Madison, Inc. President Susan Schmitz said the project would be invaluable in hard economic times and while organized labor representatives urged the council to overturn the commission in order to save jobs the redevelopment would bring.

Last month, the council set aside $16 million tax incremental financing (TIF) assistance for the project in the 2010 capital budget. The council must still approve investing the money, which would be used for underground parking and, the public terrace and staircase.

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To see more of The Wisconsin State Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.wisconsinstatejournal.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Wisconsin State Journal

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