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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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Edgewater process: Hurry up and wait?
Urgent push for approvals could be followed by a long delay
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Rhodes-Conway perceives the urgency to proceed as "specific to the Edgewater."
Rhodes-Conway perceives the urgency to proceed as "specific to the Edgewater."

The quest to secure the necessary city approvals for the Edgewater Hotel expansion, set to culminate in a marathon Common Council meeting Tuesday night, has been driven by an almost palpable sense of urgency.

Consider what happened last week Monday, May 10, at the Board of Estimates meeting. Ald. Mike Verveer urged his fellow board members to recess its discussion on Edgewater because a Landmarks Commission meeting on the subject was still going on. He called allowing these overlapping meetings "a tremendous mistake for what ... is the most contentious development proposal I've seen in my service to city hall."

But Mayor Dave Cieslewicz argued against postponement ("Very often in life we have to make tough choices") and a slim majority of the board agreed to plow ahead, to prevent any delays in the process.

And yet, testimony a little later in this meeting suggested that the project might effectively be stalled until November, when the city approves the second half of its promised $16 million subsidy.

Under questioning from Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, Assistant City Attorney Anne Zellhoefer said the "practical effect" of this bifurcated process "is that private lenders are not going to go forward with funding the developer's project until that $16 million -- I should say the second $8 million -- has been committed in November."

"So," asked Rhodes-Conway, "there'd be a pause until that passes?"

Zellhoefer: "That would be my prognostication."

"I was using big words for midnight," laughs Zellhoefer, saying only the developer knows for sure what must happen before the project can proceed. "It all depends on what other financing they have," she says, mentioning that the Edgewater developer, Hammes Co., may be seeking historic renovation and new market tax credits.

But what Zellhoefer knows for sure is that the council's passage of $8 million for the project in the 2010 budget does not mean the second half of this money is a cinch: "We cannot bind future councils."

So why the push to get this all done this week. Says Zellhoefer, "That's a question for the policymakers the mayor's office and the Council leadership. Staff doesn't set the agenda."

Neither does the mayor, according to spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson: "Dave has always deferred to the Council and the developer as to [questions of timeline]."

Ald. Rhodes-Conway, who joined Verveer in unsuccessfully seeking a delay in last week's meeting, perceives the urgency to expedite passage as "specific to the Edgewater." In general, she says, "we sequence things to go through different committees" to avoid any overlap."

Hammes Co. president Bob Dunn did not return a phone call and company spokeswoman Sarah Carpenter said Monday she had to check with Dunn before issuing a statement, which has not yet occurred.

Ald. Mark Clear, the Council president, confirms that Hammes has repeatedly expressed concerns "that delay is very detrimental to the project." But how could a delay of a few weeks or a month be a big problem if things must be on hold until November anyway?

"I would say that was just Anne's speculation on how the financing would work," says Clear, who thinks the approval process has dragged on long enough. "Any rational person who looks at how long this has been under review and scrutiny would scratch their heads over how long it's taken us to get this far."

Strauch-Nelson makes a similar point, albeit a bit less tactfully: "And really, after a more than a year-long debate that is finally coming to a close, don't you think it's ironic that now you're asking us if we're rushing it?"

No, what's ironic is that you think the debate is coming to a close.

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