Madison is still looking for a developer for Judge Doyle Square, but is no longer offering any subsidies.
Ald. David Ahrens doesn't tend to get excited about the actions of the Common Council, where he is often at odds with his 19 colleagues, protesting their votes and arguing that the data don't support their actions.
But on Tuesday night, Ahrens was thrilled about the direction the council took on Judge Doyle Square, a development he's been arguing against for more than a year.
"We've come to our senses," he says. "What the council did more or less reflects what the sentiment in the city is, which is that the city shouldn't be involved in subsidizing these properties, and we should get paid for the land we'd give them."
The council is still pursuing the project, which includes rebuilding the Government East parking ramp, building a hotel to complement Monona Terrace and potentially constructing some other type of development, be it housing, offices, retail or a mix.
But in voting Tuesday night to reissue a request for proposals, it signaled that developers shouldn't expect the city to pony up a large chunk of the cost.
The last round of proposals -- which arrived in October 2013 -- all came with a hefty price tags. The committee sorting through them eventually selected a $174 million project by developer Bob Dunn. His proposal would have cost the city close to $80 million, including $28.3 million for a new garage, $44.6 million in tax incremental financing in order to build a 318-room hotel, and another $3.9 million in TIF for private development around the garage. The city and developer later scaled the project down, but it was still too much, so the council and the mayor pulled the plug. Finally, the council voted to rebid the project.
The new request for proposals still ask for a hotel, but states "No TIF assistance shall be available for the non-parking elements of the project." The city will pay for and control the parking.
The proposal also states that the developer will have to buy both the air rights above the garage and the property behind the Madison Municipal Building, where a hotel would likely be built. (The earlier proposals had the city giving developers the land.) And the city reserves the right to use 20,000 square feet of space in the development for meeting space to complement Monona Terrace.
The new proposals meet Ahrens main objectives -- removing a subsidy for a private hotel development, which he does not believe will help Monona Terrace book conventions. And he's also thrilled that a developer won't be given valuable city land.
"The only thing the city is doing now is we’re selling the land," he says. "This is what should have been done from the beginning."
It was a rare moment of victory for Ahrens. "I've always been involved in political or social movements. I did anti-smoking for 10 years in the state," he says. "I never felt like I really did something that's definable. In this instance, giving a small handful of people credit, we really did it."
"It could have been a debacle," he adds.
New proposals are due May 1. Ahrens is confident the city will get some, even without the promise of subsidies, given the boom in hotel construction downtown, the high occupancy rates and the valuable location. Ald. Mark Clear is a longtime champion of the project who had supported a controversial proposal to turn the Municipal Building into a hotel and build new city offices elsewhere. He says he's comfortable with the new request, but is less confident the city will get good proposals without public support.
"[Developers] may well come back with a proposal that requires more public support than the city has indicated it's willing to give," says Clear. "I would hope that developers would be willing to propose what they think will be successful, even it might not meet the letter of the RFP."
Another opponent of the project, Andy Olsen, is also pleased with the new proposal but frets a subsidy is lurking in the shadows.
"Citizen pressure has reduced the subsidies, or at least sent them into hiding," Olsen writes in an email. "Mayoral candidates should explain what they will do with the nearly $20 million in public funds tied up in the TID 25 reserve. Those funds should be released ASAP for pressing needs."