I like fire escapes. To me, they're unintentional urban art forms.
Think about West Side Story and the role fire escapes play in that production. Audrey Hepburn sang "Moon River" out on a Manhattan fire escape in Breakfast at Tiffany's. How many spy thrillers have featured chases across rooftops and swings from fire escapes? Fire escapes are romantic. They're urban art, and they wait for adventure.
In fact, West Side Story was based in a neighborhood that is no more, destroyed by the grand, open and mostly desolate plaza that Robert Moses created for Lincoln Center. Imagine what that corner of Columbus Circle in New York might look and feel like today if it had been more carefully planned and preserved.
This leads me to the controversy over the 100 block of State Street, the back of which faces the grand and imposing Overture Center. For years, despite weak denials by his front man Marty Rifkin, it was an open secret that Jerry Frautschi was buying up the buildings in the 100 block, sometimes paying double or more their worth. (Does it bother anyone else that this whole project was built on lies? I guess not. Never mind.)
Jerry was paying whatever the price, because he just didn't like the view of those fire escapes (and other things) from the big windows of Overture. It was his plan to level the block and create a green vista so that Overture patrons could enjoy an unobstructed view of the Capitol. (In my former job I said that that would happen over my dead body. Well, politically at least, that is now a very dead body.)
Nonetheless, Jerry was eventually convinced by his friends that clear cutting the block just wasn't going to fly, and so he refashioned his plans for Block 100 to what is before the city today. Jerry would keep the historic Castle & Doyle building intact, rebuild the facades of a couple of other buildings but otherwise take down, and completely rebuild the block into something much more tidy.
Jerry's come a long way from the awful idea of "Lincoln Centering" the 100 block, but his idea should still be rejected by the city. That's unlikely because Jerry has employed the deftest inside politico in Madison, George Austin, to pull this off for him.
Up against the insider's insider Austin is the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation and its leader Jason Tish. The Trust and Tish are absolutely right to propose a buffing up of the existing buildings, but I'd go even further. The Trust has proposed an alternative to keep the historic block intact, and there's no question that the Vallender building, for example, which forms the sharp corner of State and Fairchild, needs a whole lot of restoration work.
But I would keep the fire escapes. It comes down to whether you can appreciate an urban aesthetic or not. It comes down to our tolerance for the grittiness of real urban spaces versus the idea of suburban tidiness --- and the sterility that comes with it. I like that view from Overture's big windows and I love the view from the Overture rooftop overlooking the 100 block to the Capitol.
Look, Jerry Frautschi is a good man who has done wonderful things for this city. (I actually think his greatest achievement is not Overture, but the Madison Children's Museum. That wonderful facility has made thousands of kids and their parents happy and stimulated ideas and learning.) He deserves our thanks and our respect. But he is not owed our deference.
Jerry has needlessly blown a ton of money on Overture. He spent way too much on the building to begin with, incinerated about $15 million to bail out the art center after an ill-advised scheme to play the stock market with his money blew up, overpaid to buy the buildings on the 100 block, and now would put another $10 million or so into the redevelopment of that block.
It's not just his money at stake here. Jerry is reshaping a public space and impacting the public coffers, both positively and negatively. He proposes to send all the revenues from the new Block 100 development to Overture, which could provide the arts facility with up to $200,000 a year.
That's great. But imagine how much better off the taxpayers and Overture would be if Jerry had built a more modest building and took the tens of millions that got vaporized in the stock market scheme and the Block 100 venture and put it into a safe endowment to cover Overture's expenses.
Let's not forget that it was the same George Austin who sold the city council on the crazy and irresponsible idea to refinance the Overture debt and play the market again in 2005. That resulted in the crash that caused Jerry and his friends to cough up yet another $15 million, and this time for nothing except to pay off the banks. George Austin is bright. George Austin is smooth. George Austin is not infallible
This is not like Monona Terrace. In that case, the convention center was the controversial answer to a century-long public debate about how best to link the downtown to Lake Monona. But there is no public outcry to do something about the 100 block. This is not a public agenda item, but a personal one.
Could the old block use some TLC? Sure. And the Trust has some good ideas in that regard. But it doesn't need to -- and shouldn't be -- entirely remade.
If you're going to fundamentally alter an historic block at the center of our city, you need a better reason than that Jerry Frautschi doesn't like the view from the big windows of his arts palace.
Save some money. Save the fire escapes. There's a place for them. Somehow. Some day. Somewhere.