Schmidt (left) wants to see more discussion on a Monona Terrace hotel, while Weier (right) says the hotel is not needed.
The Madison Common Council quietly kept negotiations alive on the controversial Monona Terrace hotel project Tuesday night, leading a prominent critic to accuse his council colleagues of circumventing the public process.
City staff have been negotiating with developer Bob Dunn over the $177-million Judge Doyle Square project, which includes replacing Government East parking ramp, building a hotel to complement Monona Terrace, and adding high-end residential and retail. The renovation of the Madison Municipal Building for city offices is also sometimes considered part of the project, although the cost of the renovation (roughly $30 million) is being considered separately.
Recent negotiations on the project had the city's contribution at $47.1 million in tax incremental financing and $28.3 million to replace the Government East parking ramp. Most council members agreed that the hotel portion was simply too expensive.
But Tuesday night, the council approved a resolution -- suggested by the city's Board of Estimates last week, but drafted and introduced by council president Chris Schmidt on Tuesday afternoon -- that keeps the hotel a possibility, giving city staff until Nov. 1 to negotiate a cheaper project with Dunn.
Only two alders, David Ahrens and Anita Weier, voted against Schmidt's proposal. Weier says "I was against giving more time for negotiations. I don't think the hotel is needed."
Schmidt also wants the city to reexamine how it builds the parking component.
The current proposal locates the majority of parking on the site of the current Government East ramp, but there would also be some underground parking behind the Municipal Building, underneath a hotel. Schmidt wants to find out what it would cost to build two continuous levels of underground parking beneath both blocks and below Pinckney Street. City staff and the developer would likely work on this cost estimate together, Schmidt says.
Ahrens says the vote shows contempt for public input on an unpopular project.
"It's another example of disregard for any public comment or input," he says Wednesday. "There's no committee hearings on this, no public debate, it took place at 10:30 at night, after the place had virtually cleared out. Everybody had gone home."
He points out that the negotiating team will be returning with a new proposal to the council in the first week of November, the same week as a major election takes place, which includes the race for governor.
Schmidt argues that no final decisions will be made this year. "The justification for a Nov. 1 deadline... is to have the cost estimate available at budget time," he says. "That doesn't mean we won't go ahead with the public process."
"It's not being rushed," he adds. "Nothing has been rushed with this project. It's been going on for five years. Nobody is trying to run anything through in the dark of night. I'm tired of that [talking point]."
But Ald. Scott Resnick, who is running for mayor and who voted in favor of Schmidt's resolution, says Ahrens' concern is valid. "We will be forced to make some very quick decisions on a project that will be a flagship project for decades to come."
Mayor Paul Soglin has earmarked some money for the project in his proposed 2015 capital budget. He's called for the city to spend $12 million next year and $21 million total to replace Government East. He's also proposed spending $4.1 million next year and $29.9 million total renovating the Madison Municipal Building. If a deal is reached with Dunn by Nov. 1, more funding could be added to the budget for a hotel.
Schmidt originally suggested provisions that he quips "made it more entertaining." These ideas also hint at the complicated twists and turns the project has taken.
Two of his ideas were flatly rejected by the council. One was to consider repurposing the Madison Municipal Building for private use (possibly as a hotel) and building new city offices. This has been considered before, and rejected by the council.
Another Schmidt idea was to consider buying the Dane County jail space now located in the City County Building for city offices. The county has yet to decide if it will give up this space, but that's a possibility if the county builds a new jail.
"Part of our job is to look at all the options," Schmidt says. "One option we haven't spent a lot of time on is what if there is more space available in the county jail?"
But he adds, "The idea was so unpopular it wasn't worth pursuing."
[Editor's note: This report was updated to clarify that the Board of Estimates discussed extending the deadline for negotiation last week.]