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A view looking west up East Washington Avenue from The Constellation shows the Capitol in the background.

Anybody who follows the Madison scene is probably familiar with the city’s "Capitol View Preservation Ordinance" which prohibits any very tall buildings downtown.

The ordinance was passed in 1966 in reaction to the 18-story Van Hise Hall on the UW campus. It prohibits any buildings within a mile of the state Capitol from exceeding the height of the base of the columns beneath the dome, roughly 180 feet high.

Fearing the latest downtown building boom might also encroach on the Capitol view, State Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) recently introduced legislation to extend the height limit out to two miles.

But a lesser-known and more-restrictive height limit from the Dane County Regional Airport is having an impact on development along East Washington Avenue and would block any future high rises along that corridor and beyond.

The height restriction, which dates to the 1950s, caps any structure at roughly 160 feet tall or 1,009 feet above sea level within three miles of the airport boundaries. It's even more restrictive within designated landing approaches. The three-mile limit extends roughly to Butler Street near the Capitol Square and covers most of Madison's north and east sides.

Gebhardt Development ran into the airport height restriction when designing its 12-story Constellation on the 700 block of East Washington. That much-lauded apartment building comes in just under the limit as measured from the top of the heating and air conditioning mechanicals on the roof. Gebhardt's proposed 14-story Galaxie mixed-use development on the 800 block of East Wash is designed to exactly the same height.

In other words, it was the airport rules that prevented the developers from going taller — not any city or state laws regarding the Capitol view. The Federal Aviation Administration basically requires all U.S. airports to have similar rules for safety purposes and rarely grants waivers. 

“I’ve been trying to make that point to people but everybody keeps getting it wrong,” says Gebhardt architect Chris Gosch of Bark Design.

In fact, the airport height limit would have put the kibosh on the Archipelago Villlage proposal from developer Curt Brink for a 27-story, 570-foot tall high-rise on the Mautz Paint site across from Breese Stevens Field back in 2005. Brink is now pursuing a much smaller version of Archipelago Village on the same site, but as a technology business park and incubator.

Meanwhile, the Risser bill to expand the state version of the Capitol View protection zone from one to two-miles got a lukewarm reception at a public hearing last week. While the measure, SB564, has drawn support from some historic preservationists and Capital Times editor emeritus Dave Zweifel, it’s facing opposition from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, the city of Madison and the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin.

“We’re still hoping to move forward on it,” says Risser aide Cassie Jurenci.

Risser was an early backer of a 1989 effort by former Sen. Bill Lorge, a Republican from Bear Creek who had a keen ability to make news.

Best remembered for impersonating Elvis Presley, Lorge had urged a two-mile Capitol view limit after Mayor Paul Soglin proposed dropping Madison’s one-mile view protection ordinance to boost downtown development.

Soglin and state Legislators eventually reached a compromise to make the state law the same as the city ordinance: a one-mile limit at the bottom case of the Capitol dome columns or 1,032 feet above sea level.

At 284 feet tall, the Capitol remains the most prominent structure in the city and is visible from miles away — just as designers intended when construction began in 1906. The building was completed in 1917. 

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