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Thursday, October 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Emily Mills: Welcome to the Monkey House
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Well hello there. I'm Emily, it's very good to meet you. I'm a writer, musician, and non-native Madisonian who's been living here for nine years now. I love this city, and have become equally fond of the people who call it home.

The good folks at Isthmus, recognizing talent and absurd levels of megalomania when they see them, have very kindly asked me to keep a regular blog at their website. Previously, I'd been pontificating over at my personal site, lostalbatross.com, in a manner about as focused as a lefty political rally-which is to say, it's been all over the map.

For The Daily Page, however, my goal is pretty simple, and I've created a clever and not at all menacing acronym for it: KILS, or "Keep It Local, Stupid." I want to peel back the many layers of the delicious and sometimes tear-inducing onion that is Madison area politics and culture, and I'd love some company. So if it's got a solid local angle or connection, you can be sure I'll do my best to process, analyze and shake my fist at it.

Of course, I'm only one woman and it's easy to miss a few important morsels from time to time, so feel free to chastise, compliment, or tip me off by leaving a comment at the end of these posts. We're smart people. I'm hoping that by putting our heads together we can tackle some important questions and have a little fun along the way.

Now, let's get this word party started:

Meeting the Edgewater Hotel halfway

The saga of the plan to redevelop the Edgewater Hotel has become a fairly epic tale. The story has involved everything from suspicious lobbying efforts to upset neighbors, and redesigns to arguments about appropriate uses for TIF money.

Dogged-to-the-point-of-obsessed former alder Brenda Konkel has filed several illegal lobbying complaints against Hammes Co., the business responsible for the project. Mayor Dave has proven himself to be a stalwart ally of the plans at all stages. Accusations of media manipulation and unwillingness to compromise have flown from all sides.

But now a potential game changer has come along, as the Wisconsin State Journal just this past week reported that Hammes Co. had unveiled a dramatically different design proposal for the Edgewater, taking into consideration many of the concerns voiced by critics of the project.

I've been highly skeptical of the redevelopment plans since they were first put on the table, but I was heartened by Robert Dunn's decision to pause the process last month in order to revamp the design in response to various community concerns. It's become far too par for the course for big building projects to simply barrel through the approval and construction process regardless of any objections.

This change in the usual proceedings was a welcome breath of fresh air, and I have to admit that the new proposal looks pretty good. They've lowered the hotel tower and opened access to the lakefront terrace so that it's no longer blocked by a building. The change is a remarkable bit of deference to local wishes on the part of a developer, and we should give credit where credit is due.

Of course, this doesn't go all the way toward dispelling questions about Hammes' request for TIF money--$16 million of it--from the city, nor does it dispel the accusations of past bad business practices that have dogged the company from dealings in other cities.

The TIF issue, next to the height of the tower, is probably the most contentious. Hammes, Mayor Dave, and Dist. 2 Alder Bridget Maniaci have all argued that it's a necessary and good thing for taxpayers to shell out the dough for the project because it includes public amenities (the lakeside terrace, new parking spaces, and construction and hotel jobs), and they claim that taxes collected from the increased property value would more than pay the city back.

The problem with the pitch is that, aside from those fabulous new parking spots and what could admittedly be a very nice outdoor public space, none of it is as much of a sure thing as they'd like for us to think. Is there a guarantee that those jobs would all go to Madison residents? It's not that I'm even particularly militant about the idea, but if it's going to be part of the deal for getting their hands on $16 million, it's something worth asking. And then, how do we know what will happen to the property value? The real estate market hasn't exactly proven itself to be a shining beacon of stability and predictability.

It's also important for us to decide just how much benefit to the public any project should include for it to qualify for TIF. It's crucial that the city encourages and supports quality projects, but it's just as important for the city to make sure the taxpayer's money is being truly well spent and not just given away to any private company that bats its eyelashes at us.

Ultimately, though, I must admit that I feel a lot better now than I did initially after seeing the new plans, and I think groups like the Mansion Hill Neighborhood Association do need to take a step back from their current position of firm opposition and look for a good compromise. That is, after all, exactly what Hammes Co. has done with the revamped design. It's only fair to at least meet them halfway.

It's the Great Pumpkin, Terrence Wall!

Lately, local real estate developer superstar Terrence Wall has been coming in for an increased amount of scrutiny. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone given that Wall recently announced plans to run in the Republican U.S. Senate primary. Plus, he's never exactly been a quiet, uncontroversial figure on the Madison scene.

He's made it something of a habit to battle local political group Progressive Dane's agenda at every turn (little things like sick leave, minimum wage, lobbying registration, etc.), become a hardcore suburban colonizer, and has most recently come under fire for his use of state agricultural zoning laws.

Lefty news and opinion website One Wisconsin Now has long been a critic of Wall's various business dealings, pointing out his interesting habit of registering his various LLCs at an address in Delaware. Now OWN is pointing toward a 2-acre parcel of land owned by T. Wall Properties out by Greenway Boulevard.

The property had been zoned commercial, but Wall recently had it reclassified for agricultural use, saving his company $34,000 in property taxes. His justification for the change? Wall claims he's been renting out the land to a local farmer who was growing pumpkins "that were later sold to raise money for a Middleton youth group."

It'd be heartwarming if not for the fact that said "pumpkin patch" ended up being nothing more than a muddy, overgrown field with a dozen or so slowly decomposing plants in it.

Contrary to some popular belief about those with more left-leaning sensibilities, I'm not rabidly anti-development or anti-business. I am, quite frankly, rather fond of my heated, well-insulated home, nearby restaurants and shops, and reasonably affordable access to quality goods and services in general.

As in all things, however, there's a balance to be struck between our treasured creature comforts and the needs of the community and the land it's built upon. Wall's various maneuvers, though, smack of being extremely disingenuous. He seems to be doing his level best to duck out of his financial and environmental responsibilities to the cities from which he draws his clientele and income. And that's not someone I want responsible for so much of the land development in my community, let alone representing me in the Senate.

Everything that comes out of Madison is terrible

Speaking of Terrence Wall and negative nabob attitudes, in the above linked WSJ article, he quips that "…I guess in this town, no good deed goes unpunished." (emphasis mine)

Ah, there's nothing like a little Madison bashing to start the day off right.

I will fully admit that my beloved city is sometimes prone to bickering over ultimately meaningless minutia when far more grave issues of crime, poverty, and prejudice continue to go glossed over or completely unaddressed. It is, I think, a side effect of living in a place that is, over all, pretty dang nice. You can forget that not everyone who lives here has it so good, or lives on the isthmus, or can afford to take time off from work to attend public meetings on whether or not to make the pink plastic flamingo our official city bird.

We've got a lot of serious work to do if we as Madisonians are to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say that we are a solid, progressive city that cares about all of its residents. But I believe that our hearts are in the right place, and that a very large chunk of the criticism leveled at us is unwarranted.

Wall's "in this town" comment is just one example of the type of dismissive rhetoric often lobbed our way when we actually try to hold people and businesses responsible for actions that might negatively effect the community. Such gross generalizations about "Madistan"-or any person, place, or party affiliation-may be helpful for political slap fights, but they don't do anyone any lasting good.

I'm not interested in the ridiculous methods of cable TV pundits or bought-and-paid-for politicians. We can do better than that, and I challenge all of us, myself included, to rise above that sort of empty name-calling. I'll be doing my best to live up to that challenge here in this blog, and I invite you to call me out when you think I'm failing. I also take compliments. I am a blogger after all, and we can be a needy bunch.

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