The Edgewater Stays Afloat: Now What?

During the all-night City Council meeting to address all things Edgewater, I kept waiting for someone to say, “It’s just a hotel, Gosh.” Like Jon Heder channeling his Napoleon Dynamite character. I mean, if we could get Bob Harlan….

You would have thought the Hammes Company was trying to build a sweatshop given the pure odium of some of the opponents. I recall the phrase “an abomination to the eyes” by one of the opponents in reference to the proposal. I have seen The Abomination, and he looks nothing like the Edgewater, at least in the Stan Lee rendering.

All flippancy aside, this project went from being a hotel renovation proposal to a community polarizing debate on city process, the role of committees and commissions, TIF policy, local historic districts, and the power of neighborhood associations. Whatever the outcome of the final vote on Wednesday morning had been, the issues raised during this debate will not go away and there are not easy answers.

A reporter at one point asked me if I thought the city process was broken. I don’t think the process is broken; it is being used the way it is designed. However, I think the better question could be, do we have the right city process? Currently, committees, commissions, and neighborhoods can hold up a project for years. Some may argue that good projects are the result of long-term scrutiny and input from everybody and their cousin, at least twice. However, in the real world of real estate development, those two years can be the difference between a wildly successful project and a vacant lot where something got approved, finally, but the market utterly tanked. I am not condoning putting up buildings willy-nilly with no oversight or neighborhood participation (not that there is the financing or the market for building willy-nilly at present). There needs to be a balance and respect for the impact of extensive delays on projects. It doesn’t just hit the developer’s bottom line — it costs the end users as well.

We’re actually at a unique point in time to address these issues in a thoughtful and pragmatic manner, rather than a knee jerk reaction to one project (yes, urban design district 5-story height restriction on Langdon Street, I’m looking at you). While the Edgewater was running the gauntlet, several major projects slowed down, specifically the Downtown Master Plan and the Zoning Code Rewrite. It is through these two initiatives that we as a city have the opportunity to address many of the issues that came up during the Edgewater debate.

At one of our first Zoning Code Rewrite Advisory Committee (yep, ZCRAC) meetings, the consultants provided an analysis of our current zoning code, but also laid out “other ordinances” that we could consider separately from this process. One of those was the role of the Urban Design Commission. It was suggested that because we were moving to a hybrid zoning code, one that is based both on land use and on building forms and standards, the role of the Urban Design Commission could change. The UDC would primarily look at a much smaller portion of the projects in its purview, provided the rest of the project fit the new building forms and standards requirements. Sounds reasonable to me. You may recall the pithily named Common Council Organization Committee Subcommittee on Committee Creation and Committee Rules (good old CCOCSCCCR), formed to “review City committee, commission and board rules and how committees, commissions and boards are created.” Perhaps a similar subcommittee should be formed to look at the mission, scope and powers of commissions, committees and boards. Or at least a couple of them.

The Zoning Code rewrite also provides the opportunity to create zoning that supports the City’s Comprehensive Plan and adopted neighborhood plans, so that the Planned Unit Development, or PUD process, stops being the norm, and starts becoming the exception it was meant to be. It is the PUD process that often pits developer against neighborhood association. Should neighborhoods be included in the process? Absolutely. Should a small group of vocal opponents have greater sway over projects that impact the whole city? Not so much. Again, having underlying zoning that enables projects will help reduce the number of PUDs, thus cutting down on what there is to fight about. Neighborhoods will know what to expect based on zoning, and developers will know what they can build. If we do it right….

The Downtown Master Plan, which was rolling along, will probably have to be reexamined now that we know there is going to be a high-speed rail station downtown. The way we deal with allowable density downtown will need a hard look. So will local historic districts and downtown urban design districts. Do they still make sense as they are written? Will having a major transit hub downtown necessitate greater allowable density in the urban core? How do we balance preserving the truly special and historic parts of the downtown, while creating the kind of urban vibrancy necessary to keep a downtown alive and thriving? Now is the time to really examine these issues. The “process” is already in place to do so!

The city is also convening a new TIF committee to look at industrial TIF policy in Madison. I think it should look at condensing the whole policy. I will not even get into the multiple-year debacle that was the last TIF Ad-Hoc Policy Committee, but I am hopeful that the Edgewater TIF debate raised public and policy-makers awareness of how TIF really works, and the potential benefits to the City. There are risks, but our track record in Madison has produced great rewards. For example, TID #28 had a base value of approximately $206 million. When it closed 7 years later, it had an incremental gain of $280 million dollars. The new base was $484 million dollars. I don’t know about you, but if I had the chance to make those kind of return on investments, I’d be all over it.

The Edgewater brought all of these issues to a head, but these wheels were in motion for years. Hopefully the public is paying attention now, when we are on the cusp of laying the groundwork for Madison’s future. What kind of Madison do we want to have in 10, 20 or even 50 years (heck, it was 1966 last time we wholly overhauled the zoning code)? We need to keep people engaged as the policy decisions shaping our future are made.