Overcoming angst about their role in reviewing a landmarks nomination that some members figure hasn't got a chance of survival before the City Council, the Madison Landmarks Commission on Monday set a Sept. 19 hearing on the former Marshall Erdman & Associates offices at 5117 University Ave.
The circa 1950 building sits on the preferred site of a new 60,000-square-foot UW Health Digestive Clinic, the anchor of University Crossing, a proposed $100 million 14-acre mixed-use development envisioned by Krupp Construction for the corner of University Avenue and Whitney Way.
A landmarks designation could sink the development, developers say. That's not going to happen, says Landmarks Commission chairman Stuart Levitan, who is confident that the site ultimately will not be landmarked. "There's no need to have any hope or any fear that it will be landmarked and affect University Crossing," he said in a later interview.
With the economy "imploding," it's more difficult than ever to create value through redevelopment, Paul Lenhart, president and CEO of Krupp, told commissioners. The additional time and money needed to fight a landmark designation will make it even harder to bring the University Crossing proposal to reality, he says. "We've spent hundreds of thousands on this application. We feel we need to have a predictable development review process."
"If they grant landmark status, all that money will be wasted," Robert Procter, an attorney for Erdman Holdings Inc. told commissioners.
Although city planners say a landmark designation would not preclude the city granting approval to demolish the building, Procter said in a later interview he just doesn't see that happening.
Developers are suspicious of the landmark application, made more than a year after plans to develop the property first surfaced. "Although it could have some merit, we feel it is a blocking tactic for this development," Lenhart told commission members.
Amy Kinast, the Spring Harbor resident who filed the nomination last month, insists she is just trying to preserve a building whose historic value she is just now learning about, along with a lot of other people. But Kinast has opposed University Crossing on other grounds, including the height of a planned six-story hotel and the potential impact of additional traffic on the area.
City preservation planner Amy Scanlon advised Landmarks Commission members not to take up a landmarks nomination made so far into review of the development proposal, which is scheduled to go before the City Council on Oct. 4.
Members of the Landmarks Commission said Monday they didn't want to throw developers a curve ball, but maintained that it is important to uphold the standards of their own process; the property at 5117 University Ave. may meet criteria for a local landmark by its association with Erdman, they say.
The builder is known for his role in constructing Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark First Unitarian Meeting House, as a national pioneer in the design of pre-fabricated housing and medical offices and in creating the noteworthy New Urbanist Middleton Hills subdivision near the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton.
While developers say their intention to raze the former Edrman building has been clear for a year, as a proposal by Erdman Holdings gave way to a similar plan by Krupp, its potential historic significance has not been widely appreciated. Without a city-wide inventory of buildings with historic value, landmarks often are not identified for possible preservation until they are threatened with demolition as part of a development plan, Landmarks Commission members said.
"We're trying not to be seen as obstructionist, but people only know what's going on when it gets to this point," said Erica Fox Gehrig.
She and a majority of commission members present voted to hold a public hearing on the 5117 University nomination, although a few voiced doubts about whether the structure is landmark-worthy.
Ald. Mark Clear joined members of the Erdman family in declaring the site a poor choice to commemorate Erdman's contributions to development in Madison. Tim Erdman, Marshall's son, said saving 5117 University would mean "foregoing a $100 million development and the tax revenue it will generate in favor of a building with no architectural significance whatsoever -- empty and unused."
The desires of the family should be given special weight, Clear argued. Levitan pointed out, though, that historic preservation is about more than family desires. "The legacy doesn't belong just to the family, it belongs to the community," said Levitan.
Levitan's own family has long been associated with the Erdman family, a connection chronicled in the authorized biography "Uncommon Sense: The Life of Marshall Erdman." Levitan says that the city attorney gave him the go-ahead to pariticpate in the Erdman property discussion on disclosure of the association.