If you're going to mess with a block as historic as the 100 block of State Street, then you have to answer two questions: What's the justification for that change? And will what you build to replace it be better than what is there now?
In my view, Jerry Frautschi's proposal for the 100 block (made through his Block 100 Foundation) doesn't come with sufficient reason for change, and it would be a good deal less interesting than the current buildings. Moreover, the thing that the foundation wants worst (a pocket park) is the worst part of the proposal.
For years it was an open secret that Frautschi was buying up properties on the historic triangular block that separates Overture from the Capitol Square. In some cases he paid well over assessed value to gain control of the block.
The plan, as I understood it at the time, was to remove some or all of the buildings on the block to create a "better" and less obstructed view between Overture and the Capitol. But Frautschi retreated from that idea when it became clear that it would never be approved by the city. Instead, his Block 100 Foundation proposed to tear down six of the buildings on the block but rebuild the facades of those with the most character and put new buildings behind them.
And the foundation would construct a pocket park at the corner of Fairchild and Mifflin where the historic Schubert building now stands. In addition to remaking the block, Frautschi has proposed donating the entire income stream from the project (maybe as much as $200,000 annually) to Overture for its operations.
It's a generous proposal from a generous man, and it's not an altogether terrible idea. But that's not enough to justify such a massive change to such a historic block.
The first question to ask is, why do this? The primary reason is that Jerry and a few others feel the view from Overture's windows is a drag. But that's a highly subjective judgment. I like that view. I like the tight, urban feel of it. I'm probably in the minority here, but I even like the fire escapes visible on the backs of the buildings.
Too much tidying up of urban streetscapes leads to deadening dullness. Nobody wants to live in a museum. It's some scruffiness that makes a city interesting and cool.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote that historic preservation wasn't about preserving just grand old buildings, and it wasn't about preserving every old building, but rather "a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings."
Jacobs wrote about the need for buildings of different ages and conditions close to one another. That leads to different rents, which draws different kinds of people with various occupations mixing it up in the neighborhood. I love lawyers, but if all you have in a downtown is Class A office space, all you'll get is attorneys on the street. Tie shops will flourish. Until recently we haven't done well on this score in Madison's downtown. We've simplified the blocks surrounding the Square with a vengeance. These blocks used to be occupied by multiple storefronts. Today, they're home to far fewer entrances to much larger, self-contained office buildings and a condo tower. Half a century ago there were 53 doors on the Square; today there are 41. This makes the Square much less lively and interesting.
By those standards, what's proposed for the 100 block of State is not that bad. The Block 100 Foundation proposes putting back pretty much the same street face that's there now. But the structure behind the facades would be essentially one entity built at the same time with more or less uniform rents and conditions. It will have only the appearance of diversity.
The part of the proposal that the foundation wants most is the pocket park that would replace the Schubert building. In fact, the foundation has drawn a line in the sand and said that if the city doesn't approve it, Frautschi will drop the entire proposal and put the properties back on the market.
But the pocket park is unneeded, and it's no improvement over the Schubert building. What most American cities need is not more urban green space but more urban. And the open space is especially unneeded a block away from the Capitol park.
City committees are now tripping over themselves to try to work something out. Usually, I'm for compromises, but in this case putting the buildings back on the market could be the best answer.
An even better solution would be for the city to buy the buildings from the foundation at their real fair-market value.
As a general rule, city acquisition of key parcels is a good strategy. We did it successfully at the Villager Mall and on Allied Drive, and city acquisition of the Don Miller car lots on East Washington Avenue is yielding some really exciting proposals for infill development.
With city control of the real estate, the community could shepherd the careful restoration of the whole block. The proposal from the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation to save but refurbish and reuse the existing buildings could serve as the template. Over time the city would sell the buildings back to the private sector and return them to the tax rolls under conditions that restore the block as planned by the city. With improvements the assessed values and tax yields might rival those in the foundation's plan.
The block at the head of State Street needs some careful attention, but the answer isn't sleekness and pocket parks; it's real urban form, diversity and maybe even a few fire escapes.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at TheDailyPage.com.