Thursday, April 10, 2014

Council again on development hot seat with West Gilman project

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Amid an unprecedented downtown apartment building boom, the City Council’s taste for dense urban redevelopment is getting another major test.
On Tuesday, the Council will consider overturning a ruling from the city Landmarks Commission blocking construction of a new 60-unit apartment complex on the 100 block of West Gilman Street in the Mansion Hill Historic District.
Steve Brown Apartments wants to raze the 1960s-era, 10-story Highlander apartment building, move an older home with historic value and demolish a dilapidated rental house.
Clearing the site would make room for three, five-story apartment buildings designed to replicate brownstone-style construction from the late 19th century. Plans include 60 underground parking spaces.
But the city Landmarks Commission has denied the developer a needed certificate of appropriateness for the project, saying the size of the three new buildings — 250,000 cubic feet each — is out of scale with other buildings in the historic district. The average size building in that section of West Gilman Street is about 50,000 cubic feet.
That denial in February followed a series of efforts and revisions by the developers to improve the project, including adding brick to all sides and stepping back the upper floors on two of the buildings to lessen the visual impact.
Steve Brown Apartments has since filed an appeal of the Landmarks Commission decision. The appeal would require a two-thirds majority vote, or 14 of 20 Council members, to override the action of the commission.
Margaret Watson, CEO of the real estate firm, says the appeal is not intended as an attack on the commission, which operates under a narrow set of criteria in judging the appropriateness of activities within a historic district.
Rather, she says it’s an appeal to the full Council since that body enjoys wider latitude in making a public policy decision, according to a memo from city attorney Michael May.
“We don’t believe it’s fair to put ropes around that one part of the (Mansion Hill) district while the rest of the city is getting redeveloped at a rapid pace,” she says.
It’s a big issue for Steve Brown Apartments since it owns 20 buildings and 11 percent of all properties in the Mansion Hill district. Limits on new development there could leave the company sitting on the sidelines while its competitors move forward.
Developers also say their project will ease street parking in the congested area, while increasing property tax revenues and enhancing the value of the city and the district.
“SBA's application for permission to construct energy efficient, secure, modern, yet architecturally appropriate buildings on West Gilman Street is motivated by and in keeping with SBA’s 30 years of creating and promoting good housing solutions for citizens of the Greater Madison Area,” writes attorney Bill White, who is representing the developers, in a letter to the Council.
But Landmarks Commission chairman Stu Levitan says the issue comes down to whether Madison is going to follow the rules as they are laid out. He says the commission is only following the standards as written, which dictate that any new development in a historic district must be “visually compatible” with other buildings within 200 feet.
“To say you are going to replace the Highlander with something that is two times as large simply fails that standard,” he says.
Levitan concedes the Council could overturn the Landmarks ruling based on an overriding public need for the project, but says there is hardly a shortage of upscale housing going up downtown.
“If this was 1985 and the city was desperate for any kind of development in the downtown I could see it, but that is not the case today,” he says.
This is the second controversial downtown development project to end up needing supermajority approval of the Council to move forward.
Last month, the Council on a voice vote denied an appeal from opponents of a proposed 14-story apartment building at 149 E. Wilson St. to overturn action of the Plan Commission, which had granted a conditional use permit for the project from McGrath Property Group. 
The council has overturned actions of the Landmarks Commission before, most notably in 2010 when it voted to allow construction of the new Edgewater Hotel against the panel’s ruling.

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