David Michael Miller
Madison College wants to lease its downtown campus out for redevelopment, but the project is too costly for a consortium of nonprofit groups.
When Madison College announced last spring that it would vacate and lease out its downtown building, a consortium of nonprofits saw a chance to develop a city center of community and culture, along with affordable housing for artists and creative folks.
Many people in the community were thrilled by the idea. But it turns out to be too expensive, the consortium announced at a March 6 public hearing.
Jane Elder, executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, which is part of the group, said it could not find a way to generate enough revenue from the project.
Elder said that 50 percent of the college’s decision in choosing a final developer will be based on the guarantee of a strong income stream. The four competing proposals are major commercial developments that include hotels. “I think our development team agreed that we did not have the resources to be a financially competitive proposal against the commercial proposals,” Elder said.
About three dozen people affiliated with one of the eight nonprofit organizations included in the consortium attended the meeting held at Madison College’s downtown center; most seemed surprised and disappointed by Elder’s announcement.
The consortium, represented by development team Baum Revision Real Estate, pulled out after a financial analysis showed the expenses would be much higher than originally anticipated.
In addition to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, the consortium includes the Wisconsin Science Museum; Children’s Theater of Madison; Forward Theater; Theatre LILA; RENEW Wisconsin; Sierra Club (Wisconsin Chapter); and Family Service Madison.
The project, called “Madison Central,” envisioned an arts- and sciences-based nonprofit center with affordable housing for artists. The group hoped to convert 87,000 square feet of the building into work and community spaces to provide stability for nonprofit organizations. The plans included a shared workspace, a science museum, art galleries, a black box performance space, a community cafe and a lecture hall. The proposal included 100,000 square feet of affordable studio and loft housing units targeting artists and creative professionals.
These developments have been successful elsewhere, Elder said, citing the Cowles Center in Minneapolis, the Banana Factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in Colorado. “There are 60 to 70 around the country,” she said. “It surprises us all that Madison doesn’t have anything at this scale that is a big community gathering place.”
Allen Ebert, executive director of Children’s Theater of Madison, said the group had been reasonably confident it could raise $8 million to $12 million in a capital campaign. But, he says, now it is estimated that they would need to raise $16 million. “So we would be looking at a capital campaign, more of what Overture did, which was $15 million.”
“If we had two or three more months where we could really work on a third development that would be revenue-generating that would help offset the costs, we would feel more comfortable,” Ebert said. “We did go and try to meet with some developers; it was just too tight of a timeline.”
The other four finalists selected by the college’s District Board of Trustees in January include Alexander Company, CD Smith & HKS Holdings, Hovde, and Sherman Associates. The selected developer will have the option of renovating and repurposing the existing building, or demolishing it and constructing a new one.
Proposals are due March 15. The college’s board of trustees expects to begin negotiations with the selected developer in May.
Elder said the consortium is committed to building a shared community and arts facility in the future. The college’s downtown campus had been an ideal site with its central location, access to parking and buses and an iconic building. And the consortium still hopes something might be worked out for the site.
“We would be very open to a conversation with the college, and we’ll communicate that to them,” Elder stated. “They are aware of this process and this proposal, and they have been well aware for a year. They know what we have been trying to achieve, and we want to communicate that we are still open to a dialogue.”