Historic districts account for less than 1% of Madison's landmass, according to city staff. But boy, can they make a lot of trouble.
In 2009, a prescient Isthmus reporter wrote an article headlined "Edgewater Dust-up Could Impact Madison's Landmarks Ordinance."
I thought it would happen sooner, but Madison's landmarks ordinance is at last being rewritten.
"Hard cases make bad law" is a maxim familiar to every attorney, but it's clear that the rewrite was sparked by two recent cases.
Five years ago, the Landmarks Commission denied a "certificate of appropriateness" necessary to allow redevelopment of the Edgewater Hotel in the Mansion Hill historic district. For the first time in the 43-year history of the landmarks ordinance, the commission's decision was appealed to the Common Council, which overturned it in 2010.
Because of the battle, then-mayor Dave Cieslewicz vowed to fix the "broken city approval process" and the "vague and narrowly drafted [landmarks] ordinance."
He says today he is likely the first mayor or pubic official to call for sweeping revisions.
At the time, Kitty Rankin, who retired in 2008 after nearly three decades as the city's preservation planner, stated, "The mayor is in the development community's lap by repeating a phrase that the Landmarks Commission process is flawed. I have yet to see that it is indeed flawed."
The only other appeal to overturn a landmarks decision came this April. A proposed redevelopment by Steve Brown Apartments on the 100 block of West Gilman Street, also within Mansion Hill, was similarly denied a certificate of appropriateness. The Common Council upheld the Landmarks Commission's ruling, and for some that was "the straw that broke the camel's back," says Ald. Paul Skidmore.
Skidmore says he appreciates preservation. But, he adds, "I have a problem when some use ordinances to block development, and that's what's happening with the landmarks ordinance."
The controversy was neatly summed up in June by Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc. She told The Capital Times that "something must be done or else these districts aren't going to be anything other than old buildings."
Which, some would argue, is the precise definition of a historic district.
By the 1960s preservation had become a nationwide cause. In 1966, Congress approved the Historic Preservation Act, creating the National Register of Historic Places.
New York City's landmarks ordinance was the model for our own, passed in 1971 at the behest of Mayor Bill Dyke, who was succeeded two years later by 27-year-old Paul Soglin. It's been updated many times. Today Madison has more than 100 structures on the National Register and more than 180 city-designated historic landmarks.
Madison also has five local historic districts, including First Settlement, Mansion Hill, Marquette Bungalows, Third Lake Ridge and University Heights. The Landmarks Commission governs construction in them.
Since the peak of the Edgewater controversy, Stu Levitan, who has written a history of Madison, has become chair of the Landmarks Commission. Soglin is again mayor -- some say because Cieslewicz expended so much political capital backing the Edgewater redevelopment. Cieslewicz is now an Isthmus contributor.
Planning staff and the Landmarks Commission have been working to revise the ordinance since the Edgewater debate. On May 28, their draft was taken up by the city's ad hoc aldermanic landmarks committee, chaired by council president Chris Schmidt.
The Common Council was to vote on part of a new ordinance this month, but it's become clear that the committee's review will take much longer.
Even so, Schmidt does not predict big shifts. "I don't think you're going to see major, wholesale changes," he says. "We're still chewing on purpose and intent."
Capitol Neighborhoods Inc., which includes both the First Settlement and embattled Mansion Hill historic districts, has so far been silent. It's always been the fiercest defender of the existing ordinance.
By coincidence, the neighborhood association's president, Jeff Vercauteren, is lobbying the ad hoc committee on behalf of Apex Property Management Inc., Hovde Properties, Mullins Group, Steve Brown Apartments and Urban Land Interests. Vercauteren is an associate with the law firm Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek.
Vercauteren, who's recused himself from speaking on behalf of Capitol Neighborhoods on this matter, says his clients would like to see an ordinance that allows for "different types of investment in the districts," whether renovation or new development, "and doesn't try to define up front what is the best type of investment."
"I think in terms of direct dollars of economic impact, in terms of construction jobs and investment in property tax impact, certainly more density will provide a bigger direct impact," he says. "But that's not to say there isn't some value in the character of [a historic] district itself."
One proposed change that's likely to please Vercauteren's clients has to do with the process developers use to appeal decisions to the Common Council. Previously, "the council was supposed to apply the same standards that the Landmarks Commission did," says Schmidt. "The new language allows the council to take into account the greater good of the city."
That's not likely to please strict preservationists, who note that local historic districts account for only .71% of all land in the city. Surely that tiny fraction can be excused from answering to a citywide "greater good." However, preservationists want the ordinance rewritten, too.
"The practice of historical preservation has changed and become more sophisticated. It's important that we update our ordinance to make sure that it is state of the art and incorporates best practices," says David Mollenhoff, historian and author of Madison: A History of the Formative Years. He's a member of Madison's recently formed Alliance for Historic Preservation, whose aim is to advocate for a strong landmarks ordinance. Former preservation planner Rankin is also a member.
The ad hoc committee's work has been split into two stages. The second, which deals with historic districts, will likely face even more of a delay. The capital budget, which the council will consider in early November, includes $250,000 for a comprehensive preservation plan. The second phase of revisions will likely be postponed until that plan is completed.
City preservation planner Amy Scanlon cannot even predict a completion date for phase one. Some say as soon as December, others say summer -- or longer.
Until the council votes on a new ordinance, we still have the old one. How does it look from outside the city?
"Madison's ordinance has been in place for over 40 years," says Will Cook, associate general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "This successful track record is the best evidence of a long history of broad government and popular support, and reflects a recognition of historic preservation's economic benefits."