The City that Stands 187 Feet Tall!

Our summer clerk comes through again to explain why certain Madison venues are the way they are. He may not appreciate all of the great winter activities available in our fair state and city, but he makes up for it by explaining some of our city’s quirks.

Summertime is an excellent time (and one of the only times) to enjoy the outdoors in Madison. There is nothing like looking out across Lake Mendota, Lake Monona, or upon the State Capitol with the backdrop of a sunny, blue sky while sipping on a tasty beverage.  The other day, I found myself atop the picturesque AC Hotel at Eno Vino Downtown, enjoying a delectable cocktail and wondered why Madison only has a few rooftop bars. After going down a proverbial rabbit hole of future city development proposals and approved plans and trying to find specific regulation on restrictions to rooftop businesses, my research led me to height restrictions across the city. These restrictions all seemingly could prevent businesses from choosing to go the rooftop route.

The first potential issue I briefly mentioned in my last blog post; Madison has a number of Nationally Registered Historic Places that are subject to the rules defined under Wisconsin Statute § 101.121 (2)(c). Therefore, many businesses may not be able to demonstrate that a rooftop bar or lounge can “accomplish[ ] the same general purpose,” of preservation or restoration of historic buildings and thus would not be eligible to pursue a rooftop venue.

Another potential restriction is one I recalled learning when on my first State Capitol tour: the State Capitol view preservation. Wisconsin Statute § 16.842, or the State Capitol view preservation statute, states that “no portion of any building or structure located within one mile of the center of the state capitol building,” may be taller than 1,032.8 feet, except buildings or structures built prior to April 28, 1990. This statute was designed to preserve the Capitol as the tallest building in the downtown area and arose when UW-Madison’s Van Hise Hall was under construction back in 1966. During the Van Hise construction, the Madison City Council feared that UW-Madison’s campus would continue to build more and more high-rises that would obstruct the view of the Capitol and permanently change the city’s skyline. Although, their legislation was proposed to create  a 90-foot limit for new buildings around the Capitol and to increase the State Capitol view preservation to a 2-mile radius, Statute §16.842 remains in effect today, and the State Capitol still serves as Madison’s tallest building.  

 A lesser known height restriction that also potentially prevents businesses from pursing the rooftop venue is the Height and Use Limitations regulation for the area around the Dane County Regional Airport. This restriction mandates that, “no object may be constructed, placed, or allowed to remain on property within three miles of,” the airport that is taller than 160 feet. This restriction directly impacts the East Washington Avenue area of Madison and has already affected the height of developments such as the Constellation, the Galaxie, and the Archipelago Village.

So, perhaps it’s the fact that rooftop views may be less than impressive given these height restrictions or, perhaps it’s the fact that our lovely city only sees warm weather 3 months out of the year that keeps businesses from pursuing this path. Either way, something about braving the next Polar Vortex with a hot cider atop one of Madison’s taller buildings has a certain Wisconsin charm factor that keeps me hoping that more rooftop businesses sprout up around the city.