Is downtown capacity compatible with its culture?
When someone says "Mifflin Street," what images or associations come to mind? For me Mifflin has always been one of those places that well represent a certain facet of Madison's culture and history. Old, early 20th Century homes long since converted and dilapidated into multi-apartment student crash and party pads. The giant, boozy block party that marks the end of the school year. The street that saw armored vehicles and state guardsmen attempting to break up Vietnam-era student protests with tear gas.
There are now new plans for this neighborhood that have the potential to permanently alter the face of that rather iconic patch of former swampland. And the debate looks only to grow more heated as a greater number of people with varying interests become involved.
Currently there seem to be two camps forming in the discussion of what to do with Mifflin: those who would like to see the old homes preserved and renovated (PDF), and those who would like to see them razed to make way for high-rise apartment buildings.
As far as I can see, both sides make good points. The preservationists don't want to see a classic piece of Madison bulldozed to make way for overly expensive towers. The pro-demolition set, on the other hand, argue that the old homes are too far gone and that adding taller infill will help ease sprawl while lessening the burden on transportation and natural resources.
Even though there are merits and problems with both arguments, my concern is that this debate will devolve into bickering and personal attacks, much in the way the Great Edgewater Debacle has sometimes gone.
What I'd like to see is the people and groups responsible for making this decision taking serious heed of responsible infill, reasonable pricing, and historic character -- none at the expense of the others.
Simply put, there are already too many expensive apartments and condos littering the downtown. Not all students can afford to live in Lucky. I could barely make rent when I was shelling out a measly $200 a month for an apartment while I was in college, so if there are to be viable options for off-campus living, we need to balance the high-rises with the garden-levels.
Figure out which of the old homes are salvageable and offer low or no interest loans to companies or families that want to move in and renovate them. Affordable single-family houses on the isthmus are nearly unheard of so consider this a good way to change that and blow a few minds while you're at it.
Then, utilize the rest of the land to build taller apartment buildings that your low-to-middle income student could actually rent. Design them to fit the aesthetics of Madison, not Madison Avenue. Hey presto, compromise!
Urban infill is an important component of more sustainable cities, but destroying all of its historical structures for no other reason than to build new and willy-nilly is not.
Kudos to the John Knox Presbytery
Because I like to relay good news in addition to my angry rants about the bad: The John Knox Presbytery -- a regional collection of Presbyterian churches that encompass, among others, the Madison area -- just voted to ordain an openly gay man who happens to be in a long-term relationship.
This is notable for several reasons, the least of which is not the fact that this may be the first such case in the history of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Gay and lesbian ministers have been ordained in the past, but the official rules say they must first take an oath of celibacy. Church policy currently holds that only legally married individuals or single people who vow to remain celibate may be ordained.
That, of course, was a controversial decision when it was made. I remember my father, himself a Presbyterian minister, telling me about the debate that preceded adoption of the current rule. There were many who (rightly) pointed out the underhanded bias of the single-and-sexless rule since gays and lesbians were not then allowed to be legally married anywhere in the States. That meant, and still means in most places, that there simply can't be a married, gay candidate of ordination.
I won't even get into how messed up I think the fixation on celibacy is -- in the Presbyterian Church or elsewhere.
Suffice to say the decision on the part of this presbytery will likely have far-reached ramifications. There is already talk of lawsuits which, though unsurprising, is still sad. But hopefully this vote is simply part of the first wave of positive change.
All my best to soon-to-be Pastor Scott Anderson.
Handle 911 with care
To the City of Madison: Why should the county service have to jam up their emergency dispatcher's time handling non-emergency calls complaining about parking on your streets? I know you're probably just hard up for cash and lashing out at anything that might cost you more of it, but this just comes off as petty.
To Kathleen Falk: Hold your horses there, partner. While an automated phone tree system to handle non-emergency calls to the county's 911 center is probably a really good idea, it doesn't do you (or it) any favors to jam its implementation down everyone's throats without much warning. It's far too important to get this thing right to rush the job. And when I say "important" I don't mean for anyone's political careers: I mean for those people who really need to utilize the emergency dispatch system and would benefit from those operators not being waylaid by parking complaints.
Interestingly enough, Mayor Dave's post on the subject has some perfectly reasonable ideas about how to better handle this situation, including a 311 system for non-emergency calls. Though where he says Madison shouldn't have to deal with its own parking complaint calls because no other communities in the county have to, the conclusion I'd reach would likely be the exact inverse.
Oh Brothers, where art thou?
The Fortneys, owners of Brothers Bar and Grill, have been staging a rather public campaign opposing the UW's use of eminent domain to take their building and make way for the construction of a new music facility.
There have been full page ads in several area newspapers, interviews on various radio and television shows, and of course the gigantic banner now hanging from the side of their establishment.
At first blush their argument appears perfectly justified: The owners of Brothers had been negotiating a buy-out price with the UW, but allege that the university then backed out of the deal when they realized it would be cheaper to use eminent domain on them instead.
That would be pretty shady, but things get more interesting when you dig a little deeper. Thanks to comments left on this post about the dispute, I was led to an article showing that the owners of Brothers specifically outbid the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in order to buy the property back in 2006 -- nearly a year after the Board of Regents officially announced that it "was to be demolished as part of the university's master plan."
You almost have to applaud their moxie.
But it's a money grab, plain and simple. They bought the property knowing full-well that it would be a short-term investment and something they could wave in front of the university as a bargaining chip when the music school plans went forward. Put up a stink, ask for a whole lot more money than you paid for it, and then claim, loudly and publicly, that you're getting screwed so as to stir up support for your cause.
I'm not generally a fan of eminent domain, but I can't say I entirely blame the UW for wanting to use it in this case. The alternative smells very much like blackmail.