Madison, Wisc., Says No to Hotel Expansion

The Edgewater Hotel is located in downtown Madison, Wisc.

Credit: Madison Trust for Historic Preservation

A proposal to expand a 1940s Art Moderne hotel in Madison, Wis., has sparked a reevaluation of the city's 30-year-old landmark ordinance.

At an 11-hour meeting that ended at 5:30 a.m. this morning, the City of Madison's common council essentially rejected a local developer's plan to remodel the lakefront Edgewater Hotel. (With a 12-5 vote, the council failed to overturn the city landmarks commission's previous rejection of the project.)

"When the vote was cast, it put a big smile on my face," says Jason Tish, executive director of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation and a partner in the field for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Everyone wants to see something [built] there, but this was not the right project."

The Madison-based Hammes Company, owned by Robert Dunn, proposed to renovate the existing hotel, build a tower atop it, and revamp nearby public space. Dunn's $107 million project called for condos, a hotel with a spa, lakeside bar, and meeting rooms, and new public plazas and pathways. (Dunn could not be reached for comment.)

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who urged Dunn to appeal the landmarks commission's Nov. 30 rejection, leading to yesterday's meeting, has criticized the "broken city approval process" and the "vague and narrowly drafted [landmarks] ordinance," according to the Wisconsin State Journal. "The Edgewater [debate] drove it home for me. I feel their pain. I understand their frustration. There's got to be a better way," he told the Journal earlier this month.

Preservationists object to the proposed height of the tower, located within a historic district, but acknowledge that other parts of the expansion would help revitalize the area.

"There are aspects of the project that would be beneficial in terms of rehabilitation of the original Edgewater Hotel and improvements to the public space and lake access, and these aspects should be incorporated into a design that is more appropriate in relationship to the residential district and respectful of the existing ordinance." wrote Royce Yeater, director of the National Trust's Midwest Office, in a Dec. 7 letter to Mayor Cieslewicz. "To sacrifice the integrity of the Landmarks Ordinance and trade off protection of historic characteristics in other Historic Districts for this version of the proposed Edgewater project is an unwarranted response."

This is not the end of the road for Dunn, who could submit a revised project or ask for the issue to be reconsidered. In addition, the three alders who were not present at last night's meeting could request a new vote.

"It's not a done deal," Tish says. "The problem was that this developer presented a project that they wanted to see built there rather than … designing a project that fit within the ordinance," he says. "They tried to hammer that square peg into a round hole."


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