Tuesday, February 28, 2006

East Washington Avenue Redevelopment: What Are They Thinking?

by Tom Bozzo

Apart from the big building at the end of the street, a visitor taking a first drive down Madison's East Washington Avenue could be forgiven for wondering if he or she had made a wrong turn and ended up in Rockford instead. It doesn't look like much, unless by "much" you mean that it looks like a mix of postindustrial blight, car sales lots, parking lots, hardscrabble strip malls, and the architecturally no-account headquarters of everyone's favorite business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

The city and state have been dumping a lot of money into a reconstruction of the road and landscaping (the slow-loading picture on the project's web page puts about as bright of a spin on it as framing techniques allow), but what's really needed is redevelopment in the corridor.

So it's a head-scratcher, to say the least, that the first major redevelopment project to reach a late planning stage, proposed by developer Gary Gorman for a car lot a few blocks from the Capitol Square, has apparently foundered over $2 million in disputed tax incremental financing subsidy. Brenda Konkel, who represents the area on the city council, is understandably irritated. Pissed, even. As Konkel describes, it's a model for infill development. It is well-scaled to the site (unlike the absurd Archipelago Village skyscraper proposed for a nearby block), looks sharp from the Avenue, has been well-received by the neighbors, and won't displace anyone who won't voluntarily leave the block (i.e., the car dealer currently there).

This seems to be a good opportunity for Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to lead, knock some heads together on both sides of the process, and get the damn thing built.

On the city's side, I can't see how the risk of being on the hook for the disputed $2 million is worse than the risk of leaving a prime infill site undeveloped. Nor is the city taxpayer's interest served if all the money dumped into the Avenue merely makes the roadway smoother for east side commuters. If the TIF for Monroe Commons is justifiable — which I think it is, to keep a pocket of blight from hollowing out the upper Monroe Street commercial strip (n.b., I'm in the neighborhood) — it's a slam dunk over there.

Likewise, I'd think Gorman could take cues from Cliff Fisher, who has managed to build Metropolitan Place on West Washington without subsidy. Prices at Metropolitan Place ended up higher than in original plans that assumed a subsidy — Suzanne had a deposit on a unit in the first phase before we met and bought our Old House — but it's hard to see how the needed 2-5% price increases to eliminate the need for the disputed TIF could render Gorman's project non-viable; that's all but rounding error in real estate pricing.

My helpful suggestion: split the difference, stop fussing (yes, I know this is Madison), and move on.
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