What if the city, county and diocese got together and grouped all three parcels?
On a cold late winter day in 2005, I stood across the street from St. Raphael Cathedral watching our Madison firefighters fight to save what was left of the historic church. It was a sad day in Madison, and over the ensuing months it became clear that rebuilding the church around the existing walls was not going to be feasible.
So, I reluctantly supported the move to take down the remainder of the church and start over.
But t has been almost seven years since the fire now, and the lot still stands vacant. Last week, the diocese asked the city for permission to take down the abandoned rectory and parish school.
This would be fine if the church had the resources in hand to build a new cathedral on the site, but they don't, and frankly, as long as Bishop Morlino remains here, they are unlikely to be able to raise the money to make it happen. Even if it weren't for the tragic mismatch between the bishop's politics and those of his flock, it seems likely to me that most progressive Catholics would rather see their resources invested in improving the lives of the poor than building an elegant new cathedral.
It also doesn't seem to make much business sense. The diocese already has three churches downtown within blocks of each other, and I don't understand why St. Patrick's or the planned new St. Paul's on campus couldn't simply be designated the new cathedral.
Meanwhile, the church is not doing well by its community. There is nothing more deadly to a downtown than dead space, whether in the form of a parking lot or a vacant one. And this particular parcel, only a block away from the Square, is particularly important. Perhaps the only institution on earth that has a more patient time frame for action than the city of Madison is the Catholic Church. This is not a good thing.
So, here's an idea. The Capitol Square South Ramp, which sits across Main Street from the vacant cathedral site, is going to need to be replaced soon. It's ugly and a terrible use of prime real estate. Additionally, a city-owned building (the Fairchild Building), sits behind the space, and is in turn underutilized to store various pieces of mall maintenance equipment and some police vehicles. I tried to get developers to look at that site for a project, but it failed for lack of parking.
What if the city, county and diocese got together and grouped all three parcels, and asked for proposals from developers for how they would redevelop them all in a mixed use project with underground parking?
The county could solve the inevitable issue of what to do with its aging ramp, and the city could get new space incorporated to replace the inefficient, dark, drafty space of the old Fairchild Building.
The diocese, instead of building a glittering new cathedral, might instead create a homeless center as part of the project, which would take pressure off the new Central Library. The homeless center could include job counseling, drug counseling, housing assistance, and other programs that could help the homeless get back on their feet. The rule could be that you could spend the day there but only if you spent your time productively. Among the Catholics I know, this would be something they would enthusiastically support with their dollars and volunteer time, and the juxtaposition of replacing a cathedral with a homeless center is just good karma. (Okay, different religion, but you get the point.)
Finally, from an urban design perspective we'd be replacing two dead blocks with new street life, while we tuck the parking underground where it belongs. And we'd be adding a good deal of new taxable value to three currently untaxed parcels.
But this would take changing some hearts and minds. God only knows.