Watson: 'We take a long-term view.'
The company is merely biding its time, hoping that a revised landmarks ordinance will allow it to move forward. Meanwhile, it's been quietly pursuing a less glamorous project in the same area: repairs to a property that was to be demolished to make room for the new development.
On April 2, the Common Council upheld a decision by the Landmarks Commission that blocked Steve Brown Apartments' proposed redevelopment in the Mansion Hill historic district, a few blocks northwest of the capitol. A 1960s high-rise at 121 W. Gilman St. and an old house at 127 W. Gilman would have been demolished. The home in-between, at 123 W. Gilman, would have been moved.
In their place, three buildings in the style of New York brownstones were to have been built. There were concerns about height, as well as density (the number of units) and massing (the size of the development).
After the $14 million project was killed, CEO Margaret Watson vowed in a prepared statement that Steve Brown Apartments "will not be developing a new proposal." At least, she says, not until revisions are made to the landmarks ordinance.
Edgewater Hotel redevelopment ran into similar problems in 2009-10. That project was also rejected by the Landmarks Commission, but the council overturned the decision.
Revisions to the landmarks ordinance have been discussed by a panel of alders ever since. Changes could be presented to the council as early as autumn, according to Stu Levitan, chair of the Landmarks Commission.
Revisions might allow a new project to squeak through. They might even allow the original.
But meanwhile, Steve Brown Apartments must deal with repairs to 127 W. Gilman that have been ordered by the city.
The city first ordered the repairs by Oct. 9, 2011.
On July 1, 2013, a city of Madison Building Inspection Division report determined that the building was heading for "demolition by neglect."
"It appears that the owner [is] attempting to allow the building [to] erode through neglect and plans on using deteriorated conditions as justification and support for demolition at [a] future date," the report stated. This was even though the property was "located in a historic district so demolition may not be possible."
The 2013 inspection report was referred to the city attorney with a request that he "prosecute to compel compliance."
By Jan. 30, 2014, another city inspection found that "damage and deterioration" were "so significant that it is not reasonable to expect that the building can be either repaired or moved; rather, the building would need to be completely deconstructed and replaced with new materials to be returned to a functional state."
After its redevelopment proposal was rejected by the council, Steve Brown Apartments applied for -- and on May 29 received -- a building permit to "repair facia, soffit, gutters, downspouts, porch, foundation, doors and windows; tear off and reshingle roof." The estimated cost is $30,000. Watson estimates that scraping and painting will be complete this week, depending on the weather. The city's deadline for completion was July 27.
Watson did the work grudgingly. "SBA finds itself required to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a building no one can use and from which we can't generate income," she says.
'We fixed everything'
The age of 127 W. Gilman is uncertain. There was already a house there about two years after Madison incorporated as a city in 1856, according to the city's planning division. It is unknown whether that is the same building that stands on the site today.
Most of the current structure, however, has been there since 1893. In 1922 it became the home of a Jewish organization and, in 1927, Phi Sigma Delta. The fraternity was founded for and by Jewish students at Columbia University in 1909. It grew and, in 1934, the national organization began a refugee program for German Jewish students to come to America.
That may be why, in 1940, the Madison chapter moved to a far larger facility at 146 Langdon St., today's Nottingham housing cooperative. After a series of national mergers, Phi Sigma Delta was incorporated into Zeta Beta Tau, which continues at UW-Madison; 127 became a rooming house, serving as such for decades.
By the 1990s, Steve Brown was looking to acquire the two buildings flanking his offices at 120 W. Gorham, itself a Madison historic landmark. The neighboring homes had the same owner, who wouldn't sell unless Brown also took 127 W. Gilman. He finally did.
Watson denies that it was SBA's intention to demolish 127 from the start. "We got it in '94, and in '95 we were hit with a 38-item inspection from the city," she says. "We fixed everything on their first request. That was left over from the previous owner."
It continued as a rooming house, but after two independent firms inspected the property and finally deemed it unsafe for tenants, the company "did the responsible thing and closed it" in 2002, says Watson. It was used as storage for a while, but no longer.
As for the delay to repairs ordered since 2011, Watson says her company worked with the city during the development period of the apartment project. "We said, 'You're asking us to do these things. Can we please have an extension and hold on until we know what's going on with the development -- whether it's going to happen or not? If it doesn't happen, we'll take care of the exterior just like we promised. No problem.' And so that's what's going on [now]."
She hopes that a revised landmarks ordinance will allow possibilities. "I don't know what that new development will look like, but we would like to do something in Mansion Hill at some point.
"We've been here for more than 30 years," Watson adds. "And we take a long-term view. So we'll just wait until we see what happens. And then hopefully we can propose something nice that will be approved and work well in the neighborhood."