City Gets Serious About Boosting Development

Steve Cover’s brief tenure as the city of Madison’s director of planning and community and economic development has given local developers reason to be optimistic about Madison’s economic future.

The city’s development review changes, chronicled inside this month’s edition, were produced from an internal review process in which he purportedly set the tone with these words: “I don’t want to hear that we’ve always done it that way.”

That’s refreshing, and even though it involved process improvements that could be done without Common Council approval, the consensus view is they represent a step in the right direction. But anyone who knows how suffocating bureaucracies can be also knows that good intentions can be undermined.

The city has no choice but to make its process more developer-friendly. More than 50% of its properties are off the tax rolls, it has to do some budget pruning, and it might have to ask more of the University of Wisconsin and state government to cover various services it provides on campus and around the Capitol Square.

Moreover, the city has only so much space for new development projects, including at the second University Research Park and near the airport, and a bad process also impacts its ability to complete infill projects.

That said, a few high-profile failures like the Edgewater Hotel fiasco and outright foolishness like expecting Marcus Theaters to pay for a bike overpass – goodbye Madison, hello Sun Prairie – can skew perceptions. Quality projects are being completed in Madison, as judges in our annual Commercial Design Awards will attest, but one wonders how much business the city was chasing away.

While a wait-and-see attitude is in order, Cover says city staff has been approached by developers who vowed to never again work in Madison. Effusive praise for Cover (and Mayor Paul Soglin and Aaron Olver, economic development director) comes from Joanna Burish, CEO of Welton Enterprises. “I know I sound like a Steve [Cover] cheerleader,” Burish acknowledged, “but at the end of the day developers are getting things done, Steve is trying to help Welton and Gialamas and others, and the city is having conversations with developers and brokers outside the committee process.”

That’s okay, Ms. Burish, at least you’re rooting for the home team, and that’s what gets lost in this. People like George Gialamas and Kurt Welton have made enormous contributions to this city, and they don’t deserve a maddening review process. Cover and staff recognize that.

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