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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fair
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Blockbuster!
The nearly complete rebuilding of Block 89 deserves its rave reviews
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Credit:Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

Siena limestone! Just look at the blue and gray grain, developer Brad Binkowski says as he tours the future home of Park Bank on the ground floor of 33 East Main. That's the flashy new postmodern glass office tower rising at the corner of Main and Pinckney on the Capitol Square.

'Salt destroys everything in this city,' he says, then points to the fine detail of the bank floor. 'A limestone floor is not traditional for an office lobby, but I think this is going to be the perfect application for this building.'

There's a story behind the story. Binkowski first came across Siena limestone's remarkably rugged properties while visiting a Spanish watchtower that dated back to A.D. 1000. 'The stone and the carving on it was almost as crisp as the day it was cut,' he says approvingly.

For Binkowski, attention to such detail has been a lifelong pursuit, tracing to his boyhood in Milwaukee and Hartland. 'When I was a kid, I built tree forts, and I used to figure out how all the pieces came together,' he says, gesturing at the construction hubbub around him. 'This is just a bigger tree fort. You have to figure how it's supposed to work, how you can make it elegant, how you can make it interesting.'

On the unfinished fourth floor, Binkowski notes another elegant touch ' the tiny balcony attached to what will soon be attorney Steve Hurley's office, overlooking the Capitol.

'This is just a bigger tree fort,' Binkowski says again, pleased with his metaphor for the intricately plotted $104 million project. Block 89 ' the name comes from the block number on the city's original plat ' is the biggest and most impressive collaboration to date by Binkowski and longtime partner Tom Neujahr, who operate under the business name of Urban Land Interests.

The duo have put in 12 years ' 20 if you go back to their first property acquisitions ' conceiving and executing this block-wide project, and it has left architectural critics in Milwaukee and Chicago swooning.

'The project offers lessons for cities nationwide, among them Chicago,' says Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin, praising how Block 89 'saves old buildings and carefully inserts new ones that are respectful of their surroundings, but bracingly inventive.'

'The result is a near-model of how to do infill construction, the art of fitting new buildings into tight urban spaces,' writes Whitney Gould of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 'Milwaukee, take note.'

These out-of-towners point out something that Madi-sonians, perhaps blasà from Block 89's long gestation, may not realize: As a redevelopment project, Block 89 stands out in a quarter century of many notable downtown projects by Randy Alexander, Todd McGrath, Fred Mohs, Marty Rifken, the Mullins family, the Keller family, Cliff Fischer, Bob Blettner, Joe Krupp, Kenton Peters and Stonehouse Development.

Block 89 is arguably the best in show. Occupying a full block on the southeast side of the Capitol Square, Block 89 mixes smart, eclectic architecture (by Valerio Dewalt Train Associates of Chicago), old buildings, new construction, underground parking and a devilishly complicated private-public partnership that has paid off in spades for all concerned.

When 33 East Main, the last building in the Block 89 mosaic, is completed this spring, the project will be home to some 1,500 people working for more than 70 employers. Tenants include major restaurants Johnny Delmonico's and Ocean Grill, bustling food-and-coffee vendors like Marigold Kitchen and Starbucks, and no fewer than 17 law firms.

'They're fantastic landlords,' Marigold's Phillip Hurley says of Binkowski and Neujahr. 'They're the real deal. From the get-go, five and a half years ago, we've had a good relationship with them,' including Urban Land offering design and builder advice in finishing Marigold's compact 2,000-square-foot space.

'Our whole philosophy is that in real estate you get one chance to do something,' says Binkowski. 'You better do it right, and you better do something that will stand the test of time.'

Neujahr agrees: 'We want to do something that contributes to the life of the downtown. That's been our unifying theme.'

By any measure, Urban Land Interests has been hugely important for Madison's downtown revitalization. During the downtown's darkest days in the 1980s, when suburban sprawl accelerated and traditional central city retailers steadily shuttered their stores, Urban Land pulled off a series of stunning successes, converting fading historic properties to new and modern uses.

Binkowski, 59, and Neujahr, 65, first met studying real estate under the UW-Madison's legendary Jim Graaskamp, then worked for high-flying developers David and Jim Carley before the brothers crashed and burned. Out on their own, Binkowksi and Neujahr converted the old Doty School into condominiums, Lincoln School (home to the Madison Art Center before its move to State Street) into apartments and the vacated Fire Station #2 into hip office space. (See sidebar, 'Urban Land Does Madison.') But Block 89 is by far their most ambitious effort.

It took Neujahr and Binkowski nearly 10 years after acquiring the old J.C. Penney's and adjoining properties to realize they could redevelop the entire block if the city was willing to help. (See sidebar, 'A 20-Year Odyssey.')

'Block 89 is probably the most complicated project ever attempted in Madison,' says Binkowski. The project included the city taking the old Gus's Grocery through eminent domain, the move of the state law library and the state-sponsored Creative Learning childcare center to new quarters, and the state buying the old Kresge's department store and selling it to Urban Land.

'At times, it was like we were playing chess blindfolded,' Binkowski says of the project's many challenges.

The key to unlocking Block 89's full potential is its 743-stall, five-level underground parking ramp, which took a laborious three years to build and involved removing five million cubic feet of earth.

Typically, downtown developers are squeezed on two ends when putting a project together: providing onsite parking while building no more than 10 or 11 stories high to preserve the Capitol view. Installing a ramp above grade, though much cheaper than below-grade construction, seriously eats into the revenue-generating developable space and drives a dagger into street-level retail.

Block 89's far more expensive alternative required city assistance and an innovative financing plan: The city's Community Development Authority built the project's $27.4 million underground ramp and leased it to the city, which in turn leased it to Urban Land, which is responsible for all debt service and operational costs.

Binkowski says the ramp operates at an $800,000 annual deficit, which Urban Land must absorb. But the convenient parking is a great loss leader for attracting high-end tenants. More than 90% of Block 89's 453,000 square feet of office space is leased, he reports.

And under that novel financing plan, new property taxes generated by the project ' $5 million thus far, according to City Comptroller Dean Brasser ' are applied to parking expenses through a city subsidy program called tax increment financing.

'It was more expensive to put the parking underground, but the payoff for the city has been invaluable,' says David Jennerjahn, the project's managing architect, citing the improved retail vitality at the street level.

'This would have been a radically different project without underground parking,' Binkowski concurs. 'Far less desirable. Big chunks of the block fronts would be devoted to parked cars. We wouldn't have been able to produce anything close to what we've done.'

Indeed, Block 89's great accomplishment has been avoiding the hulking monumentalism of the Soviet-style GEF buildings and the imposing glass U.S. Bank building. By design, nothing in this block-size project challenges the preeminence of the Capitol in the architectural order.

Instead, what has been created is what Journal Sentinel critic Gould calls 'a jazzy ensemble of buildings that respect the past but do so mostly in the design language of today.'

Add to that the 'strongly sculptural architecture' cited by the Tribune's Kamin. This includes Hurley's cubbyhole balcony, the graceful aluminum canopies over Ocean Grill and the 10 East Doty office entrance, Walgreen's twisting and very rad roof, the curved ending and glass brow neatly atop 10 East Doty.

These design touches make for a memorable project both esthetically and commercially. But can the formula be repeated?

Binkowski and Neujahr have their doubts. Changes in city TIF policy ' namely, limiting assistance for developers to 50% of the new tax increment and demanding that the city share in the proceeds when a project is sold ' would render the current design of Block 89 unaffordable today, they say.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, a big fan of Block 89, says 'it isn't necessarily the case' that similar projects won't receive future city support. Instead, he says there's been a shift in policy to use TIF more for economic development and less for housing. But how placing greater limits on TIF will accomplish this isn't clear.

What to make of their differing interpretations? Either Block 89 represents an end to a great era in the downtown's revitalization or, if Madison is lucky, a high point in the continuing story of revival.

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