The new year will bring new attention to what has been a back-burner issue: Building a snazzy public market in downtown Madison.
Next week, the city will be presented with an ambitious plan to site the market, at a cost of $18 million to $19 million, on the Brayton parking lot. That's a prime downtown site facing East Washington Avenue just two blocks from the Capitol Square.
"The project has purposely been in a quiet phase while we do the legwork to drive risk out at every step of the way," says Jim Bower, of Blue Planet Partners, who's been working on a business plan and site selection with Marianne Morton of Common Wealth Development.
If Bower sounds cautious about the risk, it's understandable. This is a fateful proposal for both regional-food advocates and for downtown boosters.
As developer Tom Neujahr of Urban Land Interests points out, the Brayton lot is one of only two sizable vacant sites near the Capitol. (The other is the surface parking lot behind the Madison Municipal building.) "A vacant site is a very precious thing" for downtown development, Neujahr says, because it simplifies land acquisition and site clearance.
Neujahr feels a public market "could be one more reason why people love downtown Madison." But, he cautions, "you want to be careful how you 'spend' your vacant sites, because it could foreclose your ability to respond to a better development opportunity in the future."
Bower and Morton don't have any doubts about the worthiness of a public market. In a 67,000-square-foot facility, they envision 40 permanent vendors, including cheese and wine purveyors, produce sellers, ethnic food delis, chocolate-makers, and juice and flower stands; another 15 day-vendors selling seasonal products; and cultural and arts programming designed to draw a diverse crowd.
"Not just high-end shoppers," Morton adds, but a product mix that draws people from across the city.
"The public market will be one of the most unique spaces in the region if the job is done right," says Bower. "It should be a place where your senses come alive - bustling with people and full of activity."
Doing it right seems to be the operating principle of its advocates. They've attracted several hundred thousand dollars in pre-development funding from the Madison Community Foundation, the city and state, and philanthropist John Taylor. An advisory group has been formed, and outside consultants have been in brought in, including the former manager of Seattle's Pike Place, perhaps the best-known public market in the U.S.
But the proposal may be gulp-inducing for city officials. The public market, if pursued, could be the largest city-initiated downtown development effort since Monona Terrace.
Co-owned by the city parking utility (two-thirds) and the state of Wisconsin (one-third), the Brayton lot would almost certainly be refashioned into a block-sized public-private development featuring the proposed market, a new parking ramp to replace the lost parking stalls, and unknown other uses. Retail stores, restaurants and government and private offices are all possibilities, Bower says.
Both he and Morton say that the project's ambitions are much bigger than creating mere vending stalls. "We want the market to be a catalyst for the local and regional food economy," he says. "Second, we want to create a vibrant public space that is really inclusive - bridging the gap between the urban and rural, suburban and downtown and between all ethnicities."
His third goal may draw the most interest in city hall: the public market serving as an economic dynamo to spin off new businesses and jobs on surrounding blocks.
This being Madison, no one should hold their breath. While talk of the public market began nearly four years ago, groundbreaking might not come until 2010 or 2011, "if everything goes right," says Morton.