Beyond the debate about height, past discussions of historic preservation, and away from controversies over lobbying practices, the only issue that sticks out in my mind as being truly troubling is the Edgewater redevelopment plan's request for Tax Increment Financing, or TIF.
It was good to talk about the merits of all the aforementioned subjects. Making sure a developer isn't just going to wedge a completely inappropriate eyesore of a building into a historic neighborhood is a worthwhile endeavor.
But since the beginning I've been uncomfortable with the Hammes Co.'s request for $16 million in TIF from the city of Madison. Not only is the Edgewater not located in a designated TIF district, but it also doesn't strike me as the kind of project that should really be so dependent on public funds to make it happen.
All along Hammes Co. has argued that, without the money, the hotel project wouldn't be able to go forward. This is a $98 million redevelopment project, but Hammes Co. and its city backers say that $16 million is needed for the "public plaza" that's to be built leading from Wisconsin Ave. down to the lakefront.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for public access to the water and the terrace idea sounds lovely. But this is still an overwhelmingly private project we're talking about, with private revenue and, save a few tables and chairs along the lake, mostly private access.
And now there's talk of putting condos on the upper levels, but it's worth pointing out that a city rule change from 2009 strictly prohibits investment in condo projects.
Wouldn't TIF money be better spent in districts that actually need new investment? Like the East Washington corridor that's been planned but mostly neglected for so long? Maybe the rocky economy has made the city a little gun shy about taking chances on neighborhoods with less shiny appeal.
I understand proponents' desire to bring in new development that will earn the city money as well. Frankly, that's a perfectly good and necessary goal. I worry, however, that such a desire can sometimes cloud better judgment and lead to pushing for projects that seem ideal at first blush but then prove to be less-so down the line.
A recent report by a Milwaukee-based consultant suggests that many of the positively cited projections about sales tax, room tax, and job creation revenue could be quite overblown:
A report from HMI Inc. also warns that adding new rooms could oversaturate a fragile downtown lodging market.
Using industry figures and projections, HMI estimates sales tax collections from the Edgewater at $5.49 million over the next 10 years. That is 32 percent less than the $8.1 million projected by Hammes.
HMI also estimates that Edgewater will provide $5.69 million in Room Tax revenues over the first 10 years, which is 9.7 percent less than the $6.3 million projected by the Hammes Co.
Finally, HMI estimates a redeveloped Edgewater would generate 150 to 190 new jobs. That compares to an estimate of 350 to 400 from Hammes.
The Edgewater plans have displayed so many blemishes, hit so many speed bumps, and generally stirred up so much doubt and dissent over the last year that I can't help but still be extremely suspicious of the whole thing. But if there's one piece that stands out as the most suspect, it's the TIF request.
From squatting to cleaning
The same group that recently helped a woman and her two children move into an empty, foreclosed home is still raising a ruckus over housing issues. I've already expressed my mixed feelings about their stance on squatting, but I will say that I'm glad to see they're at least sticking with the issue.
After all, even if you vehemently disagree with the squatting idea, you have to admire the tenacity and dedication to cause. Homelessness and poverty are serious issues not just in big cities but right here in Madison and on down to even the smallest of towns.
Take Back the Land-Madison, which has been working with Operation Welcome Home (the group that moved the family into the vacant home last week), held a press conference on the lawn of yet another foreclosed property to bring further attention to the issue. They also "cleaned its windows, picked up broken glass and planted flowers in its front yard."
Better than moving vulnerable people into the homes and risking their safety and the goodwill of the community, I have to commend the organization for keeping the pressure on and finding creative ways of dealing with the situation. After all, neighbors said they'd previously seen "children and homeless men going in and out of the house."
It's worth noting, too, the point made by national director of Take Back the Land Max Rameau that foreclosed homes that sit empty for so long "should be considered public housing after the billions of dollars of bailout money paid to banks."
Illegal squatting likely isn't the ultimate solution to the problem, but sometimes loud, bold protests must be made in order to spur more people toward action that will solve things in the long-term. Fact is the vast majority of big banks have not been doing their part to be productive and fair members of the national community. Their malfeasance has only contributed to problems like poor employment numbers and homelessness. It's at least partially their responsibility, then, to work toward an equitable solution. And that's why I don't begrudge Take Back the Land and other such groups their actions. At least they're trying to do something to help.