David Michael Miller
It's Madison's latest big development dust-up.
There always seems to be one. Monona Terrace, Overture, the Central Library, the Edgewater. In the end these big projects usually go forward. And I don't have any doubt that at some point Judge Doyle Square, the massive, complicated development situated on the block and a half that contains the Madison Municipal Building and the Government East parking ramp, will go forward in some form.
It just shouldn't be in the current iteration. The whole thing is collapsing of its own weight and, given the way it has evolved, it probably should do just that. The city should press the reset button.
Let's start with some quick history. For over a decade there have been two parts of the project that just about everyone could agree on. The Municipal Building is an inefficient, energy-leaking beautiful mess. It needs to be rehabbed either for its current use as city office space or in some new life, maybe as part of a hotel. The other item of agreement is that the Government East ramp is at the end of its useful life and needs to be torn down and replaced in some manner.
That's pretty much where the broad consensus ends. Monona Terrace officials, Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau leaders and most city staff and elected officials also believe that the city needs a new hotel near the convention center in order to capture all the potential business for that facility. But that's a matter of some dispute with those who oppose the Judge Doyle Square project.
By late summer of 2010 it all seemed to be coming together. I was mayor at the time and I was pushing hard for a project that I called "Public Market Square" on the same site. An independent study had identified the parking ramp as the best site for a market; we had settled on the state office building next door to Monona Terrace as the home for a passenger rail station that was part of the $810 million Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison line; and hotel developers were interested in taking over the Municipal Building and bringing back its grandeur as a grand entrance to a new hotel.
Then it all fell apart. Scott Walker was elected governor that November, and he quickly ended high-speed rail and the station that would have gone with it. But we pressed ahead with the other elements of the project. Then I lost my election to Paul Soglin, and he paused everything.
Eventually Soglin decided to restart the project, but he removed the public market and renamed the project "Judge Doyle Square" in honor of the former governor's father, who had long presided in the old federal courthouse that later became the Municipal Building. Over the next three years Soglin also made it clear that he wanted the city to keep that building instead of making it part of a new hotel. And the city decided to build the maximum amount of parking on the site, going from 500 spaces in the current Government East ramp to about a thousand in the new project.
The city called for bids, and two parties competed. Eventually, a group led by Edgewater developer Bob Dunn won. The next step was to find out how much all of this was going to cost.
The answer has everyone stuck. Dunn wants the city to build a new $23 million under- and above-ground parking ramp, and he wants $44 million in tax incremental financing assistance. That makes the previous record for a TIF request, $16 million for Dunn's Edgewater, look measly.
Since Soglin's stamp is all over the project we have to consider it his, although he has been trying to keep his fingerprints off it in recent months, probably anticipating the negative Common Council and public reaction to the public dollars involved.
Given the changes that Soglin has made in the project -- removing the public market, keeping the Municipal Building in city hands, where it will cost more to rehab than to build new city office space, and pushing for the maximum amount of parking -- I don't recognize it anymore. And I am hard-pressed to answer the very good question that alders such as Dave Ahrens and Denise DeMarb are asking: Where's the public benefit in this?
What should probably happen next is to simply start over. Alders apparently have some rough idea of how much they could support in a public investment. So, rather than call for proposals and then ask for a price tag, the city might consider telling developers up front what it is willing to spend.
It could start by trimming way back on parking. I never saw a great city that had ample parking. Think about it. Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Chicago and on and on. Great cities have hellacious parking. Show me a city that has tight and expensive parking, and I'll show you a vibrant and healthy place. Moreover, automated cars are coming, and the result is likely to be a need for far less parking. At over $40,000 a stall for the underground portion of the ramp, that cost can't be justified.
As for the rest of the project, I am convinced the city would benefit from a new hotel close to Monona Terrace. Alders might first decide what percentage of any project they would feel comfortable subsidizing (maybe it's nothing) and then communicate that to potential developers and see who submits a bid.
This is an important district in the city that is worthy of some amount of public investment. Just not this much and not for this combination of elements.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.