Student Housing: Tall building deserves fair shot

Student Housing: Tall building deserves fair shot

A Wisconsin State Journal editorial

It’s good to see the Madison Plan Commission keeping an open mind about taller buildings Downtown.

Commission members expressed interest Monday in a proposed 14-story Catholic center with student housing located on the edge of the UW-Madison campus. St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center wants to replace its much smaller and aging existing building with a $45 million worship center that could house up to 175 students and a chapel.

The proposal for 723 State St., across from Memorial Library on State Street Mall, has a long way to go in the city’s lengthy approval process. Monday’s meeting was informational, without a vote.

Church officials now seem poised to submit a formal proposal to the city early next year.

Madison has allowed several towers to rise near the UW-Madison campus for private student housing. So allowing the church to erect a similar tower for student housing seems reasonable.

But Madison has been struggling in recent years with a fear of heights. The city Landmarks Commission, for example, objected to the height of The Edgewater hotel renovation, even though an insurance building of similar height stood nearby. A super-majority of the City Council was needed to overrule the commission’s objection.

Similarly, St. Paul’s proposal wouldn’t be that much taller than nearby Memorial Library. The top floor of the proposed church center would be 165 feet, plus 10 feet for a cross. Memorial Library stands 134 feet tall.

St. Paul’s proposal also would comply with the city’s height limit for protecting views of the state Capitol.

The proposal is “quite impressive, even if it is tall,” said Plan Commission member Michael Heifetz. He urged his colleagues not to reject it outright solely because of its height. That’s good advice.

Church officials have adjusted their design to be more classical in appearance and cohesive with its surroundings. More adjustments may be needed.

The city’s Urban Design Commission gave the proposal a cooler reception, saying it seemed too tall for the pedestrian mall in front of it. Maybe.

But don’t pedestrians already walk by plenty of tall buildings near and on campus? Is this spot really so different? And won’t some other nearby properties, such as the University Book Store, eventually be rebuilt to stand taller?

City officials shouldn’t dismiss this interesting project out of hand.


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