The Judge Doyle Square project is worth serious political capital.
A couple of years ago I taught a political science course at UW-Madison built around the notion of political capital. That's a phrase politicians and journalists use all the time, and refers to the common, if largely unconscious, practice of doing things that are politically popular, accumulating a store of goodwill, and then spending it on projects that are unpopular at the moment but may be good for the community in the long run.
In my view, good politicians keep their political capital balance just slightly in the black. Politicians who do nothing but hoard political capital may be popular, but they accomplish little, while those who are profligate spenders of it find themselves out of office and unable to accomplish anything.
A case in point is the seemingly endless saga of Judge Doyle Square. The city council just voted to move the project, already stalled for four years, back to square one. After a year of negotiations the selected developer, the council voted to rebid the project and open it to other interested parties.
It's a matter of some urgency because a part of the development, the Government East Garage, continues to deteriorate, with its required expensive repairs amounting to throwing good money after bad. There's also some urgency because a tax incremental finance district that would help pay for the project is set to expire in a couple of years.
These two important downtown blocks are tired and badly underutilized. The project, or one like it, could infuse those blocks with new life and new value, paying back much more in the long-run than is spent in the short run. But the redevelopment is generally unpopular because it's difficult for Madisonians, some of whom seldom come downtown at all, to see its long-term value.
That's where strong leaders come in. What's needed is a mayor who has a clear vision and is willing to take the hits to make that vision a reality. Instead, Mayor Paul Soglin has made the project much less attractive by removing the public market component (it was referred to as "Public Market Square" before he changed it), by insisting on a costly rehab of the Municipal Building which would function better as a part of a new hotel, and by proposing way too much expensive parking.
And after doing all that to put his own stamp on the project, he has still resisted taking any ownership of it. The mayor has allowed the project to drift along without any steadfast city hall heft behind it. So it moves and stalls, moves and stalls. And a million dollars of the public's money has been wasted on studies and consultants for a project that has no clear end in sight.
This isn't just poor management by Soglin of his personal political capital account. It's a tragedy for the city due entirely to a lack of leadership.