By several accounts, the city of Madison has gotten some very exciting development proposals for the old Don Miller car dealership at the 700 and 800 blocks of East Washington Avenue.
But if you'd care to take a look at them, you're out of luck. The RFPs are being closely guarded by the city, as a committee sorts through them before making a recommendation to the Common Council.
Even the identity of the committee members is being kept under wraps, though it does include three council members: Bridget Maniaci, Satya Rhodes-Conway and Marsha Rummel.
"We're under strict gag orders," says Maniaci, who would not name other members on the committee or who selected them. However, she said they include city staff members and a private individual.
Madison bought the property -- 7.76 acres on the 800 and 700 blocks of East Washington -- for $4.7 million last year using the land-banking fund with the intention of selling land -- either as a whole or divided parcels -- for redevelopment. The deadline for proposals was June 13. Now, the selection committee is evaluating the proposals. It is expected to reach a decision as soon as today.
An open records request to see the proposals was denied. In rejecting the request, Don Marx, manager of the city's real estate office, wrote: "It is important that the selection committee's decision be reflective of the actual merits of the proposals and not the product of undue political influence and perceived public opinion. Withholding these proposals from public disclosure at this time promotes the public interests of having an independent body provide the city with an unbiased, candid and objective assessment of them."
The city received several proposals, utilizing some or all of the property. The selection committee is meeting Wednesday afternoon and a decision is expected soon. After making its recommendation, the approved proposal or proposals will be made public, says Matthew B. Mikolajewski, Business Resources Manager for the Economic Development Division. He did not know whether the rejected proposals would also be made public.
Mikolajewski says that making the proposals public now would put developers negotiating with potential tenants at a disadvantage: "If suddenly other people knew who was talking to who, they could say, 'I could do this for less.' You create a detrimental situation where people are confusing the negotiation process."
Maniaci, says she lobbied to have a meeting with neighborhood groups, but was overruled by the other committee members. However, she said she doesn't have a problem with having the proposals evaluated without input from the public. If the process was fully public, "there'd be developers lobbying neighborhood groups... . That doesn't do anything to help evaluate the proposals at the table."
That lobbying appears to already be intense: "The developers who all came to the table are very much jockeying for position and favor," Maniaci says. "I've had people drop in on me at work."
Rhodes-Conway says the city is using public input to the gateway plan to evaluate the proposals. "I'm very aware of the desire for it to have been a public process and for everybody to have the chance to see all the proposals," she says. "But that would have been a really messy process and got us into a much longer drawn out process."
But she adds: "All of it will have a chance for public input because it'll all have to go to council."
Maniaci also promised public input once the committee has winnowed down. "You'd better believe that my neighborhood is going to have their say about what gets built there," she says. "My constituents absolutely have a right to say what they like or don't like about a proposal."
Rhodes-Conway says the redevelopment is likely to come with a significant subsidy: "Most development in this corridor is going to require structured parking to make it feasible." But structure parking pushes the rents beyond the reach of most tenants, so tax incremental financing is necessary to bring the cost down.
But she adds that redevelopment is also vital for the area. "There's some interest in the district. To see the first major development or major rehab, that just changes the whole game," she says. "It sends a signal we're serious about the district and there's excitement that this is where people want to be."