A Developer’s Risky Move

Vermilion Development has done the right thing. Let’s see if they get punished for it.

Vermilion is the developer of a proposed apartment complex on Sherman Ave. across from Tenney Park. Late last year they proposed a 445 unit development at the site of an old nondescript office building, which would be razed for the project. Neighbors, as is often the case, objected to the size of the project. So Vermilion scaled it back by 10% to 405 units.

This still wasn’t good enough for some of the neighbors so they drummed up a landmarks designation effort. The claim is that the building is historically signifiant, not for its architecture, but because Harry Truman was there once. Turns out Truman showed up in 1950 to dedicate the building, which was the first home to a national association of credit unions. For some reason Truman saw credit unions as a weapon in the Cold War. I guess that’s not surprising. In those days everything was evaluated in terms of how it would help us compete against the USSR.

A conceptual drawing of the proposed project on Sherman Ave.

As I noted the other day, from that faint footnote in history sprung a 33-page dissertation on just how vital all that was to the city’s history. Never mind that it wasn’t significant enough for anybody to have remembered it before somebody camped out in the Historical Society library for a few days and dug up Harry Truman. Before you could say “the buck stops here” the paper work had been filed to landmark the building, which if successful would toss a monkey wrench into the project. The developer had already evaluated the building for adaptive reuse and found that it wasn’t feasible.

But there was a catch. If Vermilion could get its own paper work filed with the city before the City Council acted on the landmarks designation they could move forward under the old rules no matter what the Council did. Yesterday Vermilion did exactly that, albeit reduced even further now down to 331 units.

Now the Council is in an odd spot. They’re scheduled to take up the designation, which was endorsed unanimously by the Landmarks Commission, on February 7th. If they vote it down, as they should, the project should move forward and the city will get a few hundred more units of much needed housing. But if they approve it, then what?

Alders might look at this as a free vote. Sooth preservationists with a yes vote on the landmarking while knowing that the project would go ahead anyway. But here’s the problem. Yes, the project can legally move forward, but it still needs to clear at least three more hurdles. It will go before the Urban Design Commission and the Plan Commission and then to the Council for final approval. No doubt the landmarks designation would be dragged out at every stop. Neighbors would use the designation as leverage to further downsize the project, if not try to kill it altogether.

Credit this Council and this Mayor for making good on their promise to build more housing. In the last few years they’ve shown themselves resistant to the usual neighborhood NIMBY pressures. Vermilion is responding to the city’s official call to build more infill housing. If the Council swats down the trumped up landmarks play it will not only assure that this project goes forward but it will send an important signal to other developers that the city is serious about meeting its housing needs.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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