Madison is a tough place to do business -- or at least that's the notion held by many people inside and outside the business community.
The city's Landmarks Commission, which was entangled in controversy during the approval process for redeveloping the Edgewater Hotel, met Monday to discuss where that notion came from, and how to debunk it.
Tim Cooley, the city's director of economic development, seemed to believe that bad press has done more damage to the city's business environment than anything city committees have done. He told the commission, "We've got to be careful not to manage the city and manage the affairs of the advisory boards of the city based on a blog or on a story in a newspaper."
Earlier this year, the Common Council overturned a Landmarks Commission decision with a super-majority vote to allow the construction of a new tower at the Edgewater Hotel, 666 Wisconsin Avenue.
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz now wants to limit the commission's power, using the Edgewater as a chief example of the kind of impasses the city should not create. He's separately asked Cooley to conduct a thorough review of the development process.
Commission member Stuart Levitan made it clear he thinks the review is a direct result of the mayor's frustration with the Edgewater process, despite Cooley's statements to the contrary.
Levitan added that Hammes Co., Edgewater's developer, didn't follow the proper business practices when it proposed a 16-story and then a 12-story structure in late 2008 and early 2009. It wasn't until the summer of 2009 that news about the plans even trickled out, making many suspicious of what Hammes tried to do behind closed doors.
"Before you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars," advised Levitan, developers should approach the commission and hear its concerns. "That will save you a lot of money on the back end."
Commission member Bridget Maniaci, whose district covers the Mansion Hill historic neighborhood, suggested creating a continually updated online calender for major building projects so that all interested parties know what is happening when.
Cooley hopes to "streamline" the process so allow businesses know what to expect as they move through the various city committees.
"We have this opportunity now during a recession that we can really get [the development process] in shape," Cooley said. "And hopefully when the recession ends and we start seeing expansion and investment again, Madison can get more than it's fair share."
But whatever that process is, Landmarks Committee members don't want policy changes made on based what happened with the Edgewater, which they say owed to a myriad of particulars factors.
"I do want to make sure we don't use something that was outside of any norm to create our process going forward," said Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, whose near west side district encompasses a historic neighborhood. "You have that list of all the successful things [that have been done] ... so I think we need to look at what is a usual and customary and reasonable process for 90% of our developers. There's always going to be the one that will be different than anyone else."
The commission hopes to finalize its recommendations for Cooley's report at its August meeting. The mayor has asked Cooley to have the review completed by Labor Day, but Cooley hinted that he may ask for an extension.
Ald. Marsha Rummel has called for a summit on neighborhood activists to protect their right to the development approval process. It's currently scheduled for Saturday, July 31, from 9 a.m. to noon at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago St.