Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's call to strip the city Landmarks Commission of its power, relegating it to an "advisory" role, has done what Capital Neighborhoods Inc. could not: rally Edgewater Hotel opposition among neighborhood associations across Madison.
The proposed Edgewater expansion was turned down in two rulings by the Landmarks Commission Nov. 30, which deemed the project "visually incompatible" with its surroundings. At 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, at the end of a meeting that began Tuesday night, the Common Council fell two votes short of the 14 needed to overturn the commission's denial. The issue could be revisited if the three council members who missed the vote ask for reconsideration or if the project developer revamps the proposal.
But irrespective of what happens with the Edgewater project, Cieslewicz has pronounced the Landmarks' approval process "broken" and vowed to pursue changes in its governing ordinance.
"The mayor does think the landmarks ordinance and the general city approval process for development projects could be improved," says mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson. "What the exact solution is or how we come to it is not set in stone." She calls it "a conversation he wants to have in the long term, and it's one he'd want to involve more people in."
But Cieslewicz's goal was stated pretty clearly in a Dec. 10 interview with The Daily Reporter, a Milwaukee-based online construction journal. "I wouldn't support eliminating the ordinance or the commission," he said. "I just think it should be advisory."
In other words, the mayor's disagreement with the Landmarks Commission's objections to this project could lead to fundamental changes in how the city treats its historic legacy. Instead of needing a super-majority of 14 council votes to override, the commission's rulings could be freely ignored.
Said Cieslewicz in a blog post Wednesday, "If anything good can come out of this terrible outcome, it would be the real political will to change a system that has failed us."
Opposition to the Edgewater expansion has been led by Capital Neighborhoods, which includes the Mansion Hill historic district. But now that the mayor has challenged the landmarks ordinance and commission, neighborhood groups that include the city's four other historic districts are chiming in.
"I don't think that there is anything broken with the ordinance or the Landmarks Commission," says Scott Thornton, president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association, which includes the Third Lake Ridge and Marquette Bungalow historic districts. In fact, he adds, "The one thing I would like to see changed is to have the landmarks ordinance made stronger."
Thornton says the Edgewater developer, Hammes Sports and Entertainment, "came into the [Mansion Hill] neighborhood with a plan that was so out of scale with the historic district that it should never have been considered. The landmarks ordinance should trump other zoning."
Grave doubts about the mayor's desire to neuter the Landmarks Commission extend deep into the aldermanic district of Bridget Maniaci, the council's most visible Edgewater supporter.
"I'm surprised he's doing this," says Richard Linster, president of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association, which includes the Sherman Avenue historic district. "I don't think it called for this. It's an escalation that's unwarranted."
David Waugh, Tenney-Lapham treasurer and past vice president, agrees: "It is hard to comprehend that the city is willing to discard historical protections for a developer to build a luxury hotel."
The Regent Neighborhood Association, home to the University Heights historic district, will likely take up the issue at its January meeting. But already, association president Darsi Foss sees "a lot of concern about the impact to historic districts" among neighborhood residents.
Well, maybe not all of them. The Regent neighborhood is where Dave Cieslewicz lives.
Strauch-Nelson mostly declined to answer detailed questions about the project and process, or comment on rumors that planning staff is dispirited and tired of bumping heads with the mayor. But she did seek to affirm the soundness of the mayor's intentions:
"The Edgewater is an important example of a potential investment in the city that has tremendous public benefit but might be halted because of a highly subjective decision made by one city committee."
As Isthmus reported in an online post ("Edgewater Dust-up Could Impact Madison's Landmarks Ordinance," 12/6/09), Madison's landmarks ordinance was passed in 1971, in response to blowback over the destruction of historic buildings. These included the former residence of William Vilas, which Frank Lloyd Wright dubbed "the best house in Madison."
The Vilas residence, ironically, was on the current site of National Guardian Life, the site of the proposed Edgewater expansion.
Cieslewicz's vision of an advisory landmarks process would relegate the commission, part of the city's planning department, to the level of a committee. It would represent a major undercutting of its power to protect the city's historic landmarks.
On Dec. 3, planning director Mark Olinger, a longtime supporter of urban renewal by means of preservation, abruptly announced his resignation in an email to the Common Council, effective Jan. 5. Olinger has not stated a reason; the mayor has said "Mark and I arrived at this conclusion together."
Cieslewicz has called the Landmarks Commission "undemocratic." But he appointed five of its seven members, including Maniaci, the sole commissioner to back both an Edgewater variance and certificate of appropriateness.
"It was no surprise that the lone sycophantic vote came from Ald. Maniaci," says Marquette Neighborhood president Thornton. "The idea that a citizen body appointed by the mayor and approved by the elected Common Council is undemocratic is just baffling. Would the alternative be to elect citizen members through referenda?"
Maniaci is also a member of the mayor's Edgewater strategy team, which according to Ald. Mike Verveer has held closed-door strategy sessions to circumvent landmarks rulings so the Edgewater development could proceed (see "Verveer 'Fed Up' with Behind-the-Scenes Maneuvering on Edgewater," 12/11/09).
Strauch-Nelson insists there is nothing untoward about the mayor's role: "The mayor is a supporter of historic preservation and of the commission, but he does believe we could have a process that has greater transparency and accountability."
Maniaci's predecessor, Brenda Konkel, is ambivalent about returning land-use questions to the council. Past efforts moved decisions to commissions in order to streamline the process, so development projects wouldn't get bogged down.
Says Konkel, "We're trying to make the development process easier and involve the council less often, not more."