It's 10:30 a.m. on a hot summer day, and Madison real estate mogul Terrence Wall is in full sail. He spent the early morning quietly doing his civic duty at a coffee klatch with other members of a group that wants to replace the old Tenney Park warming shelter with a new multi-use structure. After a dash to Middleton, he checked with colleagues at his well-capitalized real estate holding firm, T. Wall Properties. Now, juiced with manic energy, he's giving a rapid tour of the six-story office building at 8215 Greenway Blvd. that currently serves as his company's home base.
Clearly, the guy thrives on a packed schedule.
Pausing briefly to gaze at a tidy steel and glass suburban vista that includes eight office buildings he cannily acquired in the adjacent Greenway Center office campus back in 2006, Wall says he'd like to bring even more buildings into the picture.
"I'd like to see more density," he muses, calculating the optimum amount of retail and office space the area can accommodate. "What we want to do is urbanize this space."
Then the driven, opinionated developer is again in motion. "The FBI's taking this space," he beams as he trots past a set of dusty concrete rooms that will soon be outfitted to the feds' specifications. (Security, he continues, is a top priority for the G-men, but of course the details must remain hush-hush.)
The tour of the building's upper floors ends just like it started: abruptly and breathlessly. "Now I've gotta go down to the lobby and see if it's ready for this art I bought," Wall says anxiously as he dashes into an elevator redolent with the smell of fresh paint and wet drywall mud.
"I buy all the art for our buildings," he blurts. "I try to get most of it from artists who are at Art Fair on the Square."
Terrence Wall, who is married with two kids and adamant that his family always comes first, sees his job as being about more than just square footage and leasing strategies. He takes pride in holding a long-term stake in properties where people can work, shop, eat and, in some cases, live. He feels his reputation is on the line every time the words "T. Wall Properties" get hoisted onto another faade.
The small, fit developer looks and acts a lot like a perky intern. His plain, wind-blown haircut is the same one sported by a thousand clean-cut go-getters in the UW's freshman class. The button-down shirt he wears with "Wall Properties" stitched on the breast pocket only adds to that impression of eager youthfulness.
But make no mistake, the 44-year-old graduate of the UW-Madison's highly regarded real estate program is no kid. He's one of Dane County's and Wisconsin's uber developers - a smart, aggressive, innovative real estate professional who's assembled 2.5 million square feet of properties over the course of his 19 years in the game. Much of that property is on the fringes of Madison, where he's tried to create dynamic "urban villages" containing a mix of offices, retail shopping and service-oriented tenants.
T. Wall Properties is worth about half a billion dollars, bulked up with investments of $50,000 and up from more than 200 local shareholders. It's also received a recent $110 million infusion of capital from the firm's first institutional partner, New York's Five Arrows Realty Securities.
Wall's done okay for himself since his first local venture, in 1989, when he optioned the old Fess farm. The newly minted real estate grad turned this property into High Crossing Environ, "the city's first mixed-use land development."
Assessing Wall's real estate achievements, his older brother, Kevin, a Boston-based real estate pro who admits he got out of small-town Madison as quickly as he could, says simply: "He's succeeded beyond our wildest expectations."
Electrifying the market
Despite the current national credit crunch, Wall's business shows no hint of slowing down. By treating T. Wall as a real estate holding company and taking on multiple investors, he's displayed a genius for leveraging capital.
Wall's partnership with Five Arrows Securities is just his latest move to accumulate the necessary funds to put ever larger pieces on the board. These include mixed-use projects like the $140 million West End in Verona and $250 million Tribeca Village in Middleton. Both are being built in stages, and the teetering economy has not slowed them down.
Wall has also unveiled a clever proposal to replace Madison's aging Central Library with a state-of-the-art facility that would be housed in a privately owned, mixed-use project filled with offices, a coffee shop and other commercial tenants.
Wall's friend Mike Hershberger, who got to know the budding developer when they were both studying under the legendary James Graaskamp at the UW's real estate program, isn't surprised by his success.
"Terrence is absolutely unique in Dane County; he's a visionary," says Hershberger, who does housing studies and runs the local firm Urban Solutions. "It's a cliché, but he thinks outside the box. He solves problems that others can't solve."
Hershberger adds that by forming a real estate holding company and not relying solely on traditional lenders, Wall actually changed the nature of the local real estate market. "Without that," he opines, "Dane County would be a second- or third-tier real estate market overall."
Wall's energy level obviously also has something to do with the way he's electrified the local market. Fact is, he's a dervish. As he car-hops from building site to building site, a steady barrage of questions and comments and work-related musings burst from his lips.
In the course of an hour, samples of paint and stain at an office complex T. Wall is currently refurbishing are deemed unsatisfactory; the progress of a Herculean land-grading operation at the site of the big-box-anchored West End is regarded with approval; and the company's plan to save mileage costs by replacing an SUV or two with some hybrids is tweaked. And all this takes place between incoming calls on his overactive cell phone.
During a brief break in the action, the nasal-voiced developer laughs, "I had to get rid of my Blackberry. I was emailing all the time."
Wall's influence extends well beyond the business realm, which has sometimes gotten him into trouble. Frankly, he can be an awfully squeaky wheel.
In recent years, he's railed loudly against Progressive Dane, condemning the local left-leaning political party for pushing "a social agenda." He thinks Madison's efforts to mandate affordable housing, regulate big-box stores and require local employers to offer sick leave have put an undue burden on business and stifled growth within the city limits.
In 2005, when Ald. Brenda Konkel identified Wall as one of several business advocates who weren't complying with the city's lobbying ordinance, he went ballistic. But Konkel didn't blink. "Terrence tried to bully me, including threatening to sue me, but like many bullies, he didn't follow through," says the Progressive Dane mainstay. "And I'm not bullied easily."
Wall remains deeply suspicious of government and doesn't mind saying so. "I'm a Ronald Reagan conservative," he states matter-of-factly. "Government should provide basic services and get out of the way. It shouldn't be socializing the system; it shouldn't be trying to correct the ills of the world."
That philosophy made Wall's conflict with Progressive Dane inevitable. Konkel, for one, thinks it caused his clash with the city on lobbying.
"I'm not sure he sees the difference between a government and the need to be transparent when doing the people's business," she says. "The business world does many things in private with the goal to make money, often without regard for its impact on the public welfare."
As little as a year ago, Wall didn't have many nice things to say about Dave Cieslewicz either. He felt Madison's mayor was also intent on pushing a "social agenda" during his first term in office, undercutting local businesses - particularly developers - in the process. At times, the regular column Wall continues to write for In Business magazine read like a serialized anti-Cieslewicz screed.
Wall's agitating didn't end with mere words. Unhappy with how the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce handled the affordable-housing ordinance, sick leave and the lobbying issue, he helped form two powerful new business groups: the now-defunct Common Sense Coalition and the vigorously pro-business Smart Growth Madison. In 2005, after the lobbying brouhaha, he swore off developing new projects in Madison altogether.
"For five or six years, the council was just impossible to work with," he says, explaining his reasons for abandoning the city. "I love Madison. I love the community. I've always believed in a strong downtown. But the council was full of ideologues who just killed things for petty reasons."
Wall's willingness to take on government and shout down proposals that cost developers and other business interests time and money draws praise from some quarters.
"I think Terrence spoke for a lot of developers who maybe didn't have enough guts to do what he did, including me," laughs Hershberger, Wall's old classmate. "He expressed his frustration. The city of Madison thought it could do what it wanted and developers would have to play its game. What happened is that development went to Middleton, went to Verona, went to Sun Prairie, went to McFarland. So the city of Madison didn't have quite as much of a stranglehold as it thought."
Not all business types express this level of admiration. At times, Wall's abrasive, in-your-face style has irritated would-be allies. During the lobbying affair, there was grumbling from what was then an apolitical Madison Chamber of Commerce. Other developers also distanced themselves from his most aggressive attacks, understanding that, for better or worse, getting government to approve projects and cultivate a propitious climate for business requires a certain finesse.
But Wall didn't seem to care what his colleagues in the business community or Madison's upper crust thought about his outbursts. He wanted to shake things up.
"In those years the Chamber refused to take risks, refused to endorse candidates," he says, arguing that if he hadn't bucked the system, no one would have. "It had a board that was made up of all establishment types. And no one wanted to rock the boat.
"The little guy, the small businessman, was a victim of that. I don't believe in going along with the status quo. I don't believe in change for change's sake, but when I see a need that is unfulfilled I want to see it fixed. What stands in the way of things being fixed is usually politics. And I don't just mean elective politics. It's also the social establishment. You have to do things based on their merits, not because you're afraid someone will disagree with you and not be your friend."
Why he's so driven
Wall's feisty disposition doesn't come by accident. As the second youngest of 11 siblings, he had to grab attention when he could and fight for a place at the dinner table. At least figuratively.
His family was hardly poor. While the Wall kids were growing up, their dad, John Wall, was transforming Madison-based Demco into the world's largest library-supply company. Indeed, his father's willingness to guarantee loans and family investments in T. Wall Properties was at least partially responsible for his rapid rise in the local real estate development scene.
Wall says growing up around a burgeoning business helped give him the courage to create his own firm. But his combative personality springs from a different kind of education.
"My older brother John died from a fall at 17," he explains soberly. "And when I was 7, I spent time in the children's hospital to have a birth defect corrected. When you see that and spend three and a half months in the hospital, you start to think, 'Maybe I don't have so much time.' It's probably why I'm a maverick. It's probably why I'm so driven. I know every day should count. You should never waste a day. And it drives me crazy when things are dragged out for no good reason."
Recently, Wall has softened his approach toward city officials. He argues that the reason for the change is simple: Once Progressive Dane failed to secure a majority of seats on the Common Council in the 2007 election, the local political climate got better for developers. Of course, Smart Growth Madison helped push a pro-business agenda. And he credits chamber president Jennifer Alexander for getting the business body to actively urge the council and Mayor Cieslewicz to respond to the private sector's concerns.
In early 2007, Wall began to break bread with Cieslewicz. The mayor says it was his idea.
"Terrence beat me up in every issue of In Business," relates the mayor, explaining their new period of detente. "I didn't take it too seriously; I just got tired of it. So finally I called him up and said, 'Terrence, let's go to lunch. I want to know why you think the city's such a terrible entity.' It turned out that we had a very good lunch, and talked over a bunch of issues and agreed to keep talking. By opening the dialogue, I think he heard things from my perspective that he probably hadn't heard before. I think it's just easier to hate the devil you don't know."
Once the lines of communication were opened, Wall quickly hatched his plan for the Central Library. Cieslewicz likes that Wall sketched out public and private uses for the site, including street-level retail in an area that's largely bereft of it. He also likes that the building itself would feature urban greenspace in a distinctive cut-out section of the structure.
Most of all, Cieslewicz likes the fact that this voluble, well-known member of the development community was taking a very public chance on the downtown and paying for the initial planning. For years the local philanthropic community has blown hot and cold over the idea of a truly contemporary Central Library, a project the mayor estimates will take at least $10 million in private donations to get off the ground. Right now, says Cieslewicz, philanthropic interest "has been lacking."
But with Wall onboard, that could quickly change. "You need that first person to step up, and Terrence is that first person," Cieslewicz says. "He's providing what amounts to a lead gift."
Through his father's role in Demco, Wall learned to love libraries. He understands that the contemporary public library is no longer simply an accessible storehouse for books. Instead, they're open, inviting places that offer Internet access, meeting rooms, areas for people to connect and participate in cultural exchange.
By co-locating the new library in a structure with private offices and businesses, he expects library use to increase, just as it has in other cities with modernized facilities. He dreams of a time when the Central Library - which will be guaranteed space in the new structure but wouldn't own it - will become a cultural focal point once again.
"Imagine going to the library and have dinner at a nice diner there and then going over to Overture for a performance and then going back to the library for 30 minutes after it's over and having another cultural experience," he says, clearly enraptured by his vision of urban and cultural renewal.
Wall's encouraged that the Common Council didn't drag its heels on the matter and voted at the beginning of August to approve the drafting of a request for proposals that will reflect the details of his mixed-used plan. And the mayor has included $1.7 million for a new library in his 2009 capital budget, with $28.3 million earmarked for 2010. Both allocations are subject to council approval.
"So far, I've been impressed with what's happening," Wall says. "What they've accomplished in a matter of months is incredible. This is an opportunity for us. If everything goes well, we'll look at helping downtown further."
But he says the project doesn't have to involve his company. Although Wall floated the mixed-use plan, the city could always take the idea and pick another developer. He says that would be fine with him: "We don't have to do this. We have a lot of other stuff we can do."