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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison is missing the mark on Judge Doyle Square
The downtown project should be a more exciting, useful public space
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Whatever gets built in the southeast quadrant off the Capitol Square will be there for maybe seven or eight decades. So it's important to get it right for the future, not just right for right now.

We're talking about the block containing the Madison Municipal Building, the surface parking behind it and the Government East parking ramp on the other side of Pinckney Street. The city currently calls the project Judge Doyle Square.

Here are some things pretty much everyone agrees about: The parking ramp is at the end of its design life and needs to be replaced. The surface lot is a bad use of public space and would make a good site for a new hotel to serve the Monona Terrace convention center. The Municipal Building is just a mess, and it will take maybe $30 million to bring it into even adequate shape.

This is a substantial piece of the city's heritage. It has been a badly underutilized district for a very long time, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime -- make that once-in-two-or-three-lifetimes -- chance to turn some pretty sour lemons into some pretty sweet lemonade.

And the city is on the verge of squandering this opportunity.

We have always understood that the costs for placing the parking underground, replacing the city offices with a new building or refurbishing the current one, and building a new hotel are very high. That's not news, and the specific cost projections have been public for several months. But after asking developers for specific proposals and working with two of them to refine the proposals for months, Mayor Paul Soglin suddenly decided last week that he wasn't up for the fight. He wants the costs reduced and the project diminished.

The costs are higher than they need to be, but that's largely because of Soglin's own directions. The project could be improved by doing three things that would add public amenities, reduce some costs and, most importantly, create a much more exciting and useful public space.

First, restore the Municipal Building. The city acquired it for office space in 1979, but it was designed as a federal courthouse. It never has worked well for city offices. On the second floor the grand old courtroom's windows have been blocked, the ceiling is covered over with tiles, and its awkward seating makes the room uncomfortable for everyone. For those who can't walk stairs, the room is accessible by the world's slowest two-story elevator.

It would cost tens of millions of dollars to refurbish the building, and we would still end up with a configuration that doesn't work efficiently for city staff or for the public. At a lower cost per square foot we could get a new building that actually worked like a public office building and meeting place should.

In the meantime, one developer has a brilliant plan to restore the building and bring it new life as the grand entrance to a new hotel. Defying all reason, Soglin has insisted that the building remain as city office space, probably because it was acquired during his first stint as mayor.

Second, cut back on parking and bury what you have. Above-ground parking ramps go for about $15,000 per stall, and it's twice that to put them underground. So the thing to do with car parking in a downtown is to reduce it. Some of the most successful central cities in the world, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, have actually been on a parking diet for years. Closer to home, the UW has a wise policy of no net new parking. When the campus replaces surface parking with ramps, it doesn't increase the overall number. That's smart because it means less wasted space to store cars. It encourages transit, biking and walking, which improve everyone's health and the environment while improving the ambience of the place.

But the city is going in two wrong directions here. It's building too much parking, and it now wants to put at least some of it above ground. The plan is to replace the 500-stall Government East ramp with a 1,200-stall ramp. That's way too much, and putting it above ground will deaden the block and provide far less value and tax revenue than a building would. A lot of money could be saved by halving the number of parking stalls and keeping them all underground. And we would get a much better, more vibrant urban environment.

Third, bring back the public market. The original plan called for building the new public market on the site of the Government East ramp. Despite two studies demonstrating that it needed to be downtown to work, Soglin decided unilaterally that it must go someplace else. He put the project back at least three years, and we still don't have a site. With the market back where it should be, the project should return to its original name, which was Public Market Square. Marketing is important. Public Market Square describes a place you want to be and are encouraged to show up at.

This project could be a great new public space rivaling Portland's Pioneer Square, or it could be just another collection of dull buildings and a parking ramp. Right now the city seems afraid to think about a better future.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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