Madison is taking its first steps toward what some are calling the largest redevelopment project in recent city history: a commercial and residential revamp of the East Washington Avenue corridor.
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz says the proposed Capitol East District Plan will help the city finally utilize the prominent corridor to its fullest potential. It calls for positioning East Washington Avenue as both an employment center and inviting public area, while maintaining the iconic view of the Capitol and respecting surrounding neighborhoods.
"I think the Capitol East project could be one of the biggest economic development engines for the city," says Cieslewicz. "We want it to be an urban place that is cutting edge and vibrant."
Tim Cooley, the city's economic development director, is also excited by the possibilities.
"There are tremendous amounts of vacancies and space along the corridor," Cooley says. "The area's got a funk, a vibe, a buzz, and the city deserves to have this area focused upon."
The plan gained momentum in October when the city signed a letter of intent to purchase the 7.76-acre Don Miller lots on the 700 and 800 blocks of East Washington Avenue. On Nov. 30, the Common Council approved this purchase for $5.56 million, to be paid out of the city's 2011 budgeted land-banking funds.
This price increased from the $4.73 million figure stated in the letter of intent because of additional costs likely to be incurred for environmental protection, demolition, taxes and so forth.
In recent months the Bower Group, the plan's marketing consultant, has been presenting plan particulars (PDF) to Downtown Madison Inc. and other groups.
"We've got to make sure the entire community understands the city's efforts," says Rick Phelps, former Dane County executive and consultant on the project. "There's a whole mix of reactions to something this complicated, and we need the whole community involved."
The city first began a serious examination of East Washington Avenue improvements in 2005, when it hired design consultants and held public outreach meetings for feedback. The city focused on the stretch of East Washington Avenue between Blair and First streets, along with the parallel East Mifflin and East Main streets.
"Not much has changed on East Washington over the past 30 years," says Cooley. "It's a major entryway into town, and there's a lot of locked-up economic potential in it."
An initial draft version of the plan emerged in November 2005, and was substantially revised before its ultimate passage by the Common Council in February 2008.
- The plan sets forth four core principles:
- Protect and enhance the iconic view of the state Capitol.
- Respect and strengthen existing neighborhoods.
- Firmly establish the corridor as an employment center supported by transit.
Create an inviting, vibrant boulevard along East Washington Avenue - or what the plan's marketers call "a high 'cool factor.'"
Of these four, preserving the Capitol view and being conscious of the surrounding neighborhoods were especially important to residents at a March 2005 public hearing on the plan.
"Not all the buildings will be the same size," says Mark Olinger, director of the city's Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development. "We set up a series of design guidelines where we will not have buildings just go straight up."
Other key comments from the meeting include creating a grand gateway with an identity that fits the character of the surrounding area, along with ensuring adequate parking and transit opportunities.
The city's purpose in acquiring the Don Miller parcel, says Cieslewicz, is to split the large lot into smaller pieces that are more appealing to prospective buyers.
"We realized one of the reasons that development wasn't happening there was because the parcel was big and expensive and risky," says Cieslewicz, adding that businesses are more inclined to buy smaller parcels in this economic climate.
The city will repeat this process with future parcel purchases in order to help expand business, community and residential spaces and control which industries will operate in that area.
And by drawing more economic activity to the lagging corridor, the city will reap the considerable rewards of increased tax revenue.
"If this site develops anywhere close to what the potential plan recommends, we could have the district assessed in hundreds of millions of dollars," says Olinger.
While he could not provide a specific estimate of future tax revenue for the corridor [or] how much the city will spend on other parts of the plan, like future parcel purchases, but he stresses the eventual benefits will be worth the costs of implementation. [The print version of this article contained an incorrect comparison, omitted here.]
"The potential upside for our investment in the long-term is huge compared to the cost that we will have beyond acquisition of Don Miller," Olinger says. "I think that's what people really need to think about."
Given the sheer size and scale of the redevelopment plan, Olinger says it may take anywhere from 10 to 15 years to complete all of the proposed changes. But he says there could be visible results, in terms of new businesses on the corridor, in about two years.
Neither Olinger nor Cieslewicz would identify the businesses that have shown interest in moving to East Washington Avenue, but they did say there has been sufficient interest in the Don Miller parcels and other areas. The city also considered the possibility of acquiring the Mautz Paint lot on the 900 block of East Main Street, but the Don Miller transaction was more cost-effective.
Cooley says the city would especially like to see the corridor used for certain kinds of industries, including software, manufacturing and sustainability firms.
The East Main Street side of the Capitol East District is largely slated for employment space, while the East Mifflin Street side will be chiefly used for community mixed-use parcels and residential areas.
According to Olinger, the plan's main focus at this point is finding businesses to relocate to the Capitol East District, a task made more difficult by current economic conditions.
"There's not a market to really help East Washington right now, and this happens in many cities where few businesses want to be the pioneers," he says. "We're trying to talk to as many people as possible to get that spark going."
But Cieslewicz is content with waiting on businesses to make their offers and not rush to fill each parcel.
"We're willing to be patient with our acquired land so we can channel and direct the kind of development that will happen there," Cieslewicz says. "I'm less interested in [having things happen] fast than [having] the corridor play out the way we want it to."