As a society we hold many values. We all want good jobs and affordable housing. Many of us want to see our cities thrive and we think that greater urban densities help restrain sprawl on the edges of cities and make urban areas more vibrant. We also want to preserve buildings and sites that are beautiful or have historic meaning.
But that last value should not trump all the others. And yet that’s exactly what our local historic preservation ordinances do. If a building or an area receives city of Madison landmark status, a high hurdle is created to demolish or alter the building or even other buildings in the historically designated area. An entire development can be nixed or held up unless a handful of unelected members of the Landmarks Commission approve an exception, and even then the law requires that the exception can be granted only under certain tightly limited circumstances. A ruling of the Landmarks Commission can be overturned by the city council, but that’s only happened once.
This is what’s playing out now on the city’s south side. Developer Lance McGrath proposed a large housing development on a site partially occupied by the shuttered Wonder Bar. Turns out the building, constructed in 1930, was a roadhouse where alcohol might be found in the closing days of Prohibition. It was also said to be a stop for Chicago gangsters. Prohibition ended in December 1933.
In the view of some, that’s enough to preserve the building. I don’t agree. That thin bit of history and the buildings’ unexceptional architecture don’t seem to justify standing in the way of a large housing development, particularly at a time when it is official city policy to increase the housing stock in the hopes of lowering prices.
Historic preservation is highly subjective. For any given building, some people will fight to the death for its preservation while others don’t care and still others weigh the benefits of redevelopment versus the loss of a building and conclude that the benefits of the new outweigh the loss of the old.
But our laws don’t reflect that nuance; instead they stack the deck in favor of the preservationists. In the case of the Wonder Bar, the mere threat of landmarking it has forced the developer to spend at least $250,000 to move the building to another spot on the development site. And that doesn’t count whatever development potential might be lost as the building will continue to take up space. Those costs will be passed on to renters, assuming the project now can move forward.
In a comment that only highlights the subjective nature of all this, one of the preservation activists said that that was acceptable because the building would still be in its “historic context.” Really? It’s historic context didn’t include a massive Alliant Energy Center across the street or a six-lane highway at its front door. And, assuming McGrath’s development goes through, its historic context will include a new 13-story building. From my point of view there is nothing left of the building’s historic context.
The city’s ordinances reflect the spirit of the times, 50 years ago, when they were adopted. Beautiful old buildings were being destroyed to give way to the awful architecture (much of it Brutalist) of the moment. But I’d say we overreacted then, and today architecture has improved quite a bit. It’s no longer a given that the new will be uglier than the old, though of course, that’s a subjective opinion of my own.
I am not saying that historic preservation should be abandoned. I just want it put in its proper context among other important community values. Landmark status should still exist, as should the Landmarks Commission. But the Commission should make recommendations to the ultimate decision makers on the city council. Elected policy makers should be able to balance preservation with affordable housing, density and other important considerations.
It comes down to this. If Madisonians could weigh lots of much needed housing against adding a quarter-million dollars in costs that will be passed on to renters in order to preserve the Wonder Bar, what would they choose?
A version of this post originally appeared in Isthmus.
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