Friday, December 17, 2004

The Future of Downtown Madison: Is the Sky Falling?

by Tom Bozzo

The Cap Times reports that the Monroe Commons development — a large (for the neighborhood, the rendering below doesn't do justice to the compactness of the site) multi-use building that will add 50 upscale condominiums and a new grocery store to the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood — sailed through a preliminary Urban Design Commission review on a 6-1 vote. While a neighbor of the project expresses some concerns, and my neighbor Audrey Highton puts on a good game face on behalf of our neighborhood association, there does not appear to be much opposition. (Confidential to the developers, bring in the Co-Op and the DMNA is yours.)

Architect's rendering of the Monroe Commons building.

In other downtown news, some merchants towards the Capitol end of State Street are starting to report increased traffic and sales that may be attributable to the completion of the first phase of the Overture Center and to the greater number of non-student residents courtesy of the downtown condo boom.

It's still fairly early to assess the impact Overture is having on the central city's business community, especially through the holiday season," said Jill Lundberg, Downtown Madison Inc. vice president and manager of the Central Business Improvement District.

"However, we are definitely feeling an increase in excitement about downtown Madison as a destination. Our gift card program is up 200 percent over last year, and a number of the businesses in the vicinity of Overture and up on the Square are reporting a very good year," she added. [Emphasis added.]

This caps a week that started with a Wisconsin State Journal op-ed lauding a post to the quasi-blog by local architect and developer Kenton Peters (1) claiming that a local regulatory maze, obstructionist neighhorhood organizations, and poor planning are failing to "revers[e] the decline of Downtown."

While the general thrust of Peters' post had me wondering exactly which declining Madison he was talking about, I should emphasize that he makes some good points. Downtown certainly has been in transition for some time, as industry has gradually abandoned the east Isthmus and as some large businesses have decamped to the edge cities on the far east and west sides.

The city arguably has been slow to push for a post-industrial transformation of the East Washington Avenue corridor, a potentially grand approach to the Capitol that's currently a slum of car dealers and shuttered factories. Had it been my $205 million, Overture Center would occupy one of the parking lots east of the square, where a lure to development seems more needed and some of the design constraints of the Civic Center site would have been relaxed.

Peters' most provocative point is that prime downtown real estate is too valuable to be left to office-dwellers. At least on the basis of the ugliest state office buildings along Wilson Street, this is true. However, realism dictates that the bulk of the state government, various hangers-on, and other professionals who want to be able to pop over to the L'Etoile Cafe for pastry will stay. The University — the greatest villain in this view, as its presence gives miles of prime Lake Mendota shoreline over to frats, philosophers, social scientists, undergraduate dorm-dwellers, bicyclists, and trees, not necessarily in that order — will no doubt stay put, too.

It's also true that the market has managed to survive all of the obstacles Peters enumerates to bring about a residential transformation of non-student downtown. A pair of public projects, phase two of Overture and the Dane County Courthouse, are the only nonresidential, or not substantially residential, projects seriously underway. Against that, we have hundreds of residential units under construction or in planning in large central developments, in addition to the Monroe St. building mentioned above (making me wonder how these would weather an interest rate spike):

I've undoubtedly forgotten something, but you get the picture. And don't talk to me (or Ann Althouse) about what the desirability of central neighborhoods has done to near-west side single family property values and taxes.

Weston Place rising, to give someone a chance to pay a million bucks to live on that side of University Ave.

The skyline view east-facing residents get late in the day, more-or-less. Yes, we've had prospective buyers come to our offices to try out the views.


(1) Peters is known for futuristic metal-clad buildings, some of which are cooler-looking (UW Foundation building) than others (Madison federal courthouse, IMHO). In suggesting in a portion of the post that historical preservation should ignore mere aesthetic considerations, Peters perhaps is laying the groundwork for a future generation's spare-the-courthouse effort.

Peters is also known locally for "accidentally" building an unauthorized extra floor on a downtown condo project, where the prime units command seven-figure price tags, for which he was fined an amount ($25,000) grossly insufficient to deter similar behavior in the future.
Great post. I'm counting on you to keep me in the know. I may even want to put in a bid on one of those Monroe-Street condos. And in the interest of sticking to the (arbitrary) rule-of-thumb--30% of income for the mortgage--I'm hoping that construction lasts until after I make partner at my firm (in 7 or 8 yrs). As far as the political side to all this development, I have a sense that TIF is playing a bigger role than people generally admit. The tradeoff is that our schools get starved of the property-tax revenue.
Thanks for the comment! For now at least, you can still finance a Dudgeon-Monroe house big enough for two kids on an associate's salary. The number of units claimed for Monroe Commons suggests that the average unit will be quite small. I'd guess larger units with campus/skyline views will be stunningly expensive for the area.

I hadn't thought much about TIF recently, but now that you mention it, it does seem to be doled out arbitrarily enough to seem ripe for developer-city and other sectarian strife. What's fairly clear is that the current crop of projects are viable (though as less politically correct upscale housing) with market-rate financing. If it were up to me, I'd limit TIF for central projects to subsidizing "inclusionary" prices for some units.
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