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Edgewater hotel redevelopment controversy

The Edgewater Hotel was built in the 1940s along the edge of Lake Mendota at the perimeter of what is now the Mansion Hill Historic District.  This neighborhood is adjacent to downtown Madison where both the state capitol building and the university are situated.  During the early 1970s, many of the historic mansions along the perimeter of this area were being demolished in favor of construction of office buildings.  The residents of the neighborhood decided to fight back after the construction of the National Guardian Life building, which was completely incongruent with the design and character of the neighborhood.  Through six years of debate, the first historic district in Madison, WI was established in the Mansion Hill neighborhood.

Returning to the present, the Edgewater Hotel has commissioned a developer, Hammes Co., to design a large expansion to the Edgewater Hotel.  The total estimated cost for the project was $93 million.  A request for $8 million in TIF (Tax Incremental Funding) was requested, and then more than doubled to over $16 million.  The initial plan included a 10 story wing added to the east side of the hotel complex.  The current preservation ordinance requires any new construction to be three stories or less in height.  The Edgewater was also recently added to the local landmarks as a significant contributor to the historic district.

Many mistakes were made in the initial planning process of this project, which has resulted in a firestorm of controversy over the project.  The mayor of our city, Dave Cieslewicz (or Mayor Dave as we call him) had appointed the members of the Landmarks Commission and mistakenly thought they would go along with whatever plans he had for the city.  He admitted this in an interview on television with News 3, our CBS affiliate in Madison.  The developer presented the design for the 10 story wing, which drew sharp criticism from the Landmarks Commission for ignoring the historic preservation ordinance.  The developer then altered the design by lowering the height of the building, but it was still tall enough that the Landmarks Commission rejected the project.  The city common council had to take a vote as to whether or not to overturn the Landmarks Commission decision.  They failed to do so, and the project has gone back into the planning process by being turned over to the Planning and Zoning commission in Madison.

What we have learned from this may be helpful to other communities.  First off, if a proposed development is slated for a historic district, read the ordinance first to find out what the parameters of the design need to be.  Second, work with (not against) the Landmarks Commission to figure out how to make an appealing design that fits with the character of the neighborhood.  Then present the proposed project to the public for review.  Had this project been approached in this manner, we could have avoided all the bruised egos, name calling, and general rancor among the citizens of our city.  Not to mention the fact that the developer has already invested over $1 million in the planning and design of this facility.  The real losers in this project are the construction workers who desperately need work in our struggling economy.  Had this project been conceived correctly, we would have added some stimulus to our local economy, and helped feed the families of those construction workers, and the subsequent additional hotel staff once the project was completed.

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