Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Preserving our history and our parks

James Madison Park, located on Madison's near east side and running along the lovely shores of Lake Mendota, has long been a green gathering space for students playing frisbee or football, families with young children who enjoy the playground equipment, people reading on benches, and folks wishing to rent canoes at the boathouse. It used to be the site of WSUM's Party in the Park, and usually hosts a few other festivals and gatherings throughout the year. It's a great resource, and one example of city ownership of lakeshore land in the interest of keeping it publicly accessible.

The state of the park and the various historic buildings that lie in and around it, however, is somewhat up in the air these days. Mayor Dave and certain development interests appear keen on moving those historic buildings, selling some of the land, and re-purposing sections of the park.

From my admittedly recent browsing (this issue has come up, off-and-on, for decades really), it's hard to really gauge the facts of the matter: why move the houses? how much would that cost the city? is it ever a good idea to sell off publicly held property, especially lakefront land? do the current residents want this?

Currently, a committee of alders and citizens, appointed by the mayor, exists to "report back to the Board of Park Commissioners on a proposal for the properties at 646, 640 and 704 East Gorham and the land under Lincoln School." This ad hoc committee has been mostly favorable to the idea of selling off the land under the Lincoln School, whereas the Madison Parks Commission has voted unanimously, on several occasions apparently, not to do so.

The ultimate decision may end up being left to referendum. According to a recent Capital Times article:
The decision to sell the houses, including the land under the Lincoln School Apartments, would likely be considered a change in the legal status of the park, assistant city attorney Anne Zellhoefer told the James Madison Park Property Planning Committee Thursday night. According to a 1992 city ordinance, changes in legal status as well major construction projects on parks bordering lakes and navigable waters require a referendum.
This seems reasonable to me, especially in light of the many passionate testimonials from residents regarding their feelings about the park and the historic buildings. You can read several of them in the meeting minutes from a public hearing held back in June. The overwhelming consensus, with which I pretty much agree, is that selling the historic houses is a good idea, but moving them is not. As for whether or not to sell the land under the Lincoln School, opinion seems fairly split down the middle--and for how little information I can find regarding what a sale like this would actually mean, I can understand why that is.

Selling the historic homes appears to be a good idea because the city has done a sub par job of maintaining them up to this point, and having private parties interested in historical preservation and good use would mean both preserving these places and saving the city a lot of money. In fact, the city would likely take in revenue from the sale of the homes and leasing of the land under them. You can read the original draft proposal relating to this here (click on "Conditions for JMP" link).

However, moving the homes would cost the city a great deal of money, and, in my opinion (and that of many others) take away from the historic character of the neighborhood. All designed by the same architects, they provide a great, cohesive corridor through a historic area of town that would be lost if jumbled around to different locations. Mayor Dave and his committee seem to be arguing that moving them would make for a better sight line between E. Gorham and the lake, but at present, I don't find anything aesthetically displeasing about their location. In fact, I would contend that it adds to the beauty of the park and the area, and encourages people to actually get out of their cars and walk around.

As for the Lincoln School plans, things get a bit more complicated. The current landlord of the building, ULI, has proposed buying the land under the school for a minimum of $600,000 or, if the number is higher, the appraised value (which we don't yet seem to have). Their designs for the site, though restricted from changing the exterior of the building, include turning the apartments into condominiums - something that (rightfully, I think) irks current residents and advocates of affordable housing like the area's alder, Brenda Konkel. The argument is that most of the folks now living in the building would not be able to afford the condos, and installing yet more of the buggers would only contribute to a growing income disparity on the isthmus.

ULI, it's worth noting, are apparently the same folks that wanted to demolish historic capitol square buildings (like L'Etoile and the Old Fashioned) in order to put in a nearly block-sized new development.

Plus, there's the issue of whether or not it's a good idea to sell off public, lakefront land at all. Currently, ULI holds a long-term lease on the land which, I can only assume, limits their ability to alter the use of the building. As far as I can tell, buying the land would allow them to make whatever changes they so wished to the interior, and certain city officials would then plan to use money made from the sale to, depending on what you read, plug holes in the operating budget or improve/expand the park.

But really, I have no idea what pro-selling advocates want to do with the park. That's never been made particularly clear, and that's what has most caught my attention.

It's important to balance historic and parkland preservation with responsible economic development. Finding private parties to maintain the homes seems like a sound choice, all around - but moving them, or selling the land underneath them, strikes me as a poor decision that would likely come back to haunt those who make it in the future.

I think the mayor, the committee, the alders, and the developers owe it to the community--especially the residents who actually live in the neighborhood--to be as open and honest about their plans as possible. We need to make an informed decision about these proposals, and it's understandably difficult to do so when there's so much stalling and lack of details.

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