Municipal Building story by Stuart (Stu) Levitan, Municipal Restored

Stu Levitan describes his experiences in the Madison Municipal Building, including many meetings with city staff about ordinances and committee work. He discusses some memorable events like the work done with Community Development on Revival Ridge in the Allied neighborhood, and with the Landmarks Commission regarding the Edgewater property downtown.

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    Interviewer: Okay. My name is Carmen Niemeyer, we’re here today on December 8th, 2018, in the Madison Municipal Building at the Grand Re-Opening. I have a narrator here with me, would you please introduce yourself?

    Narrator: Stu Levitan.

    Interviewer: Thank you, Stu. If you wouldn’t mind just getting us started with sharing some of your memories about the building, and your time here.

    Narrator: I have spent a lot of time in this building. I’m thinking since 1989, I may have attended, I’m pretty sure I attended more meetings in this building than anybody (loud noise in background) outside of City staff. Starting in 1989, I’ve chaired the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Community Development Authority, the Planning Commission, and the Landmarks Commission. Planning Commission met across the street in City Hall, but those other three all met here. I did the rough math—I think I attended, as a member, more than five hundred meetings in this building since 1989. At an average of at least two hours a meeting, you know, that’s like, more than a month of my life has been spent (laughs) in this building and most of those were a lot of fun.

    My first experience in this building, though, was as President of the Bassett Neighborhood Association, coming and getting the mail. And those wonderful little mailboxes that no longer exist, as so much of this building no longer exists, then starting in ’89, just coming to a lot of meetings mainly in the basement. I understand how if you weren’t familiar with it, it might have been sort of confusing. And perhaps if you were a staff person working there, it might have been awkward and inconvenient. But if you were familiar with the place, and they knew who you were, so you kind of had freedom of motion, and could move around, it was a lot of fun. I loved those rabbit warren offices. I loved coming in and thinking, “I can get to Billy Robert'’s office by this stairway, it’s fifteen steps, but if I go this way, it’s twelve steps", um, and I have a lot of really warm memories of meeting with people and doing business in those basement offices.

    Sitting with Amy Scanlon [Historic Preservation Planner] in the back, by her office, it had a little table, and writing, revising the Landmarks Ordinance. Or meeting with Percy Brown in his office, and talking about CDA things, or meeting with Warren Kenney—I remember when Brad Murphy was the Plan Unit Director, I had a lot of meetings with him in his office, but as I recall, I was always standing in the doorway, I never actually sat down in Brad Murphy’s office. Whereas, when I became Chairman of the CDA, then I could sit down with Mark Olinger [former city manager]. And I’d come and I’d say hey, Nancy Persay, who actually I saw earlier today, and it was just, there was something very gratifying and very rewarding about sitting at the table with the Director of the Planning, Planning, Community Development and Economic Development department, DPCDED (laughs), and you know, talking municipal government business. Sitting at the table with Mark Olinger and Augie Olvera and doing CDA business. The meetings in—that was all just very satisfying. You had a sense that, you know, you were able to contribute to city government, you were able to meet with meaningful people, and try and do some important things.

    The number of meetings—I used to love [Room] 260. And, man, to see those wooden chairs gone, breaks my heart. Now, I understand from Jeanne Huffman that those chairs do still exist, and they’ve been saved, they’ve not been taken to Swap Shop—but the whole thrill of a CDA meeting was getting there in time to find the chair that was comfy to lean back in and it rocked a little bit, and it didn’t squeak too much. Because the chairs really squeaked a lot, um, but they were very substantive chairs, and you had the sense that, okay, this was a comfy chair, we’re doing some serious business here. I understand the pews were sort of uncomfortable, um, but the table was nice, and the chairs were wonderful.

    Um, I remember—I have more distinct memories of meetings in this building than I do of meetings in City Hall where I was actually on the County Board for five years. I have a clearer picture of a meeting of the Landmarks Commission dealing with Edgewater up on that third floor side meeting room, I have that image as clear as day. I have the image of the night at the CDA when we approved the plan for Revival Ridge, and those, and meetings with Amy and meetings with Mark Olinger. I have a really distinct, ingrained memory of all the times I’ve spent in this building, and, it’s been very rewarding.

    Interviewer: Why do you think that is, the difference between the buildings, or your experiences here?

    Narrator: I don’t know—I was, I mean the first thing is that I realized it. And now I’m trying to figure out why it is. I really don’t know. Maybe it’s slightly more current, I was on the County Board in the early to mid-eighties, and all these other things have been post-1989 so it may just be more current, maybe it was that it was more rewarding. Maybe actually just sitting around a table with Amy Scanlon and making decisions on the Landmarks Ordinance was more rewarding than a three-hour budget debate on the County Board.

    But I have a lot of very strong, and generally positive feelings about this building. I’ve probably spent more time in this building than—I’ve spent more time in my house, but in terms of out of the house, I’ve spent as much time in this building as anywhere else. And it’s been good. And it’s interesting to feel now that I am part of the generation that’s been passed. I started in this building in its second iteration, 1979, 1980, and now it’s on its third iteration, and you know, I’m being shuffled offstage, (laughs) there’s this whole new generation of people. And all—most of the people I worked with, down in that basement, they’ve all retired. Brad’s gone, Warren’s gone, George Austen’s left, Hickory’s gone, um, so I guess it’s time for a new building for a new generation to work in it. Anything else?

    Interviewer: Ah, no, I just was wondering, you mentioned the Landmarks. Were there anything else significant things that you were involved in here in the building?

    Narrator: Well, dealing, having the long public hearings and taking the votes to disapprove of the certificates for the Edgewater, that was big. I mean, that was meaningful government action arrived at democratically, based on community participation and then citizen commissioners making decisions. That was a really—we were overturned, of course, by the City Council, but in terms of what we did, that left an impact.

    The stuff with the CDA, what we did at Revival Ridge, in terms of understanding the mistakes that the CDA or its predecessor had made in urban renewal in the sixties on the Triangle, and fixing those mistakes, and doing a better job of listening to the neighborhood, and a lot of hearings, a lot of hearings in Room 260, with a lot of people from the neighborhood expressing themselves, um, that was a very rewarding way to spend time in this building.

    You know, pretty much every time I came to this building, I left feeling that okay, I’ve done my bit as a citizen of this community, participating in its governance. And it was very rewarding, and gratifying.

    Interviewer: Wonderful, that sounds great.