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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Rising in the east
52 acres of prime real estate are fueling dreams of redevelopment
on
Royster-Clark

Larry Palm understands as well as anyone that land use is a tricky business, especially in Madison. Whether you're trying to build a swimming pool or an office tower, or just making plans for a bit of open land, you're likely to run into pockets, if not walls, of opposition. Says Palm, a Madison alderperson, 'People get all concerned and go crazy and get into a big frenzy, and then nothing happens.'

Palm's 15th District, on Madison's east side, is home to not one but two big chunks of land ready for redevelopment. And Palm, who is facing a tough reelection challenge from community activist Vicky Selkowe, is hoping that, this time, things will be different.

'I want to say, 'We need to work and act at a time when it's appropriate to work and act,'' he says. 'Patience is a virtue. So is planning.'

The two parcels in question ' the Garver Feed Mill site just north of Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and the Royster-Clark site on Cottage Grove Road ' both measure about 26 acres. Both were once used for industrial purposes, and both were once served by Wisconsin & Southern Railroad.

But that's where the similarities end. The Garver site is a de facto park already, and home to a historic building that almost nobody wants to see razed. The Royster-Clark site, on the other hand, has a few buildings suited so specifically to fertilizer production that any buyer would have to scrape the land clean and start over.

The Garver site abuts Olbrich Botanical Gardens. The Royster-Clark site is sandwiched between hundreds of residential homes in the Eastmoreland Neighborhood to the north and the commerce and industry of Cottage Grove Road to the south.

But together, the two sites ' less than a mile apart ' represent an unprecedented opportunity for the east side and for the city.

Developer Todd McGrath, whose Union Corners project is coming together nearby, says the exciting thing about the Garver and Royster-Clark parcels is their sheer size. When he was putting together Union Corners four years ago, he recalls with some chagrin, 'we had to negotiate 23 separate transactions' just to acquire the land. Neither of these sites has that issue.

'I've always felt that the east side has tremendous opportunities,' says McGrath, who's thought about making a move on both the Garver and Royster-Clark sites. 'There are just a lot of underutilized properties. There are all kinds of opportunities on the east side that you don't see on the west side.'

That's because while the west side is about as dense as it's going to get, McGrath says the east side still has a lot of relatively wide open spaces ready for infill development.

And that's the right way to grow, says Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. 'If the city is going to be responsible in the way it grows out, it has to grow up [and in],' he says. 'The city can't expand forever.'

Anyone want to buy an old factory?

The Royster-Clark site, at the corner of Cottage Grove Road and Dempsey Way, offers more traditional development opportunities than the Garver Feed Mill, so let's consider it first.

Royster-Clark began operations in 1952, about a decade before the homes in Eastmorland started going up. After more than 40 years, those residents weren't terribly happy with having a fertilizer factory as a neighbor. In February 2006, Royster-Clark had to work with Wisconsin & Southern to shift its delivery schedule to keep noisy trains from coming through after 10 p.m. But the national fertilizer giant Agrium bought Royster-Clark shortly thereafter, and in July 2006, the Madison plant was mothballed.

In the process, 29 workers lost their jobs. That's not a huge number, but, notes Palm, 'The hard part is, you've got well-paying jobs with good benefits. [The workers] have a lot of skills but not a lot of education. There's a disappointment in losing that type of job.'

The parcel is 'actively for sale,' says Palm, although Agrium officials have declined to provide details like asking price or whether potential buyers have expressed interest. Still, Palm wants to be ready.

'That day that Royster says, 'We're sold,' there are going to be a lot of people biting fingernails,' he says. 'We need that core group of people to say, 'We've been meeting, we've been talking, we need to move forward.''

The first thing most people suggest, Palm says, is 'mixed use.' But that's almost glib ' and way too easy. These days, calling a new development 'mixed use' is like calling water wet. It's the composition of the mix that becomes important, Palm says: ''Mixed use' could be 90% housing, 5% retail and 5% industrial. That's technically mixed use, but some would call that just another subdivision.'

Palm hopes that the site will be attractive to employers who may want to locate to Madison, or build new facilities on prime central-city land.

'There is the potential for this to be an employment center,' Palm says. 'Residents talk about the jobs not being where you live. I could see how someone would want to propose some corporate offices that would be useful for people who live near there.' (Residents aren't the only ones talking about putting jobs near where people live; transit planners love the idea of people walking or biking to work.)

Selkowe, Palm's opponent in the April election, wants to see jobs move in as well ' especially if the businesses are locally owned. 'Neighbors are excited about the site's possibilities, sharing my hopes that it will contain space for small, locally owned businesses and family-supporting employment, as well as housing options and greenspace,' Selkowe wrote in a response to an Isthmus questionnaire.

That makes sense to developer McGrath. The surrounding neighborhoods, he says, were built to provide housing for people who worked in the east-side industrial businesses in the 1950s. As industry has slowly left town, it makes sense to replace it with businesses that can, once again, draw on nearby residents for workforce.

Others have suggested preserving much of this land as greenspace. Palm is open to such ideas but sees complications: 'The land isn't, for the most part, quality. There's a big building on it. It's not as if this is some kind of pristine wildlife refuge.' But, Palm notes, even if just 10% of the land is set aside as greenspace, that's well over two acres ' 'a pretty good-sized park.'

At any rate, one of the first orders of business will be to determine the extent to which the property has been contaminated and requires remediation. Says Palm, 'You can't answer these questions until you get on the site, and we're not entitled to get on the site, yet.'

History and opportunity

Meanwhile, just a mile or so north and west along the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad tracks, the land behind Olbrich Botanical Gardens looks anything but industrial. In warm weather, an occasional canoe drifts along the shallow waters of Starkweather Creek. People walk their dogs in the tall grass along the railroad tracks. And the imposing figure of a once-impressive Garver Feed Mill building, now fallen nearly to ruin, watches silently over all.

This building was once the pinnacle of industry in Madison. Built just a few decades into the Industrial Revolution, it was one of four Wisconsin facilities owned and operated by the United States Sugar Beet Company from 1906 until 1924. The sugar beet business took a dive in the 1920s, and the Madison building was sold to James Russell Garver in 1929.

Garver spent untold money renovating the building into a granary and feed mill, adding docks and storerooms until it took on the patchwork character it holds to this day. Garver ran the mill himself until his death in 1973. A pair of investors bought the operation two years later and ran it, still under the Garver name, until they sold the business to Cargill and the land and building to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in 1997.

Olbrich quickly deeded both to the city. The land, with a little work to clear the ruins of some old outbuildings, would make a good greenspace, prairie restoration, or something similar. In fact, some of the land may revert to the control of Olbrich for expansion of its gardens.

The building, on the other hand, is definitely what you might call a 'fixer-upper.' A century of rain and snow has softened even the top-quality masonry of the early 20th century. Sections of roof have fallen in, leaving many interior rooms open to the elements. A 2001 fire destroyed a small section of the building and compounded the damage in other sections.

But people are sentimental beings, and loath to demolish anything with a tie to their collective history.

'The Garver project is very much about a specific building,' says Palm. 'I think Garver will for the most part be preserved. Our proposals have been for the most part just the footprint of the Garver Feed Mill building.'

Bill Barker, chair of a city committee studying options for the Garver site, sees both problems and potential. 'The problem is the building's in pretty poor shape,' he says. 'The opportunity is that it's a very large building near a bike path, near a creek, near a neighborhood that cares.'

The reuse committee is now hammering out criteria for proposals, well in advance of hearing specific ideas for how the building might be used. Any end use will need to be responsive to the criteria that the reuse committee is developing, with input from the public and surrounding neighborhoods.

Last fall, as part of the planning process, area residents were invited to walk the property with digital cameras, snapping pictures of everything they liked. The pictures, along with sometimes long-winded written and verbal comments, will be used in the ongoing planning effort. Says Barker, 'We've really tried to make [the process] a model for being open.'

At some point, the city will put out a request for proposals for the Garver property. But already, one particularly vociferous group is pushing a vision for the site.

For art's sake?

Common Wealth Development, which owns and operates two small-business incubators in Madison as well as a few dozen low-to-moderate-rent apartments, would like to turn the Garver building into a fine arts incubator.

Fine arts incubators have cropped up in about a half-dozen U.S. cities, including Beloit. They offer low-rent studio and office space to artists and arts groups (and sometimes arts-based business, like graphic design firms), as well as gallery space and business guidance.

'They help artists make a living at their art,' says Sarah Hole of Common Wealth Development. The group, on its Web site (cwd.org), waxes poetic about the possibilities:

'Imagine...a beautifully restored historic building filled with creative activities. Artists are at work in their studios creating paintings, sculptures, glass and prints. A group of schoolchildren watch intently as a potter demonstrates wheel throwing in the workshop room.... The entire building is alive on Open Studio Night as artists welcome the public into their studios. This is Common Wealth Development's Madison Arts Incubator project.'

Fine arts incubators aren't just about pretty paintings; they recognize the economic impact of what's been dubbed 'the creative economy.' The arts, after all, are part of 'what makes a city vibrant and attractive to knowledge-class workers,' says Hole. (The tie between the arts and the economy is seen as so tight that Beloit's fine arts incubator is in the same building as its chamber of commerce.)

Hole says the Garver Feed Mill building would be perfect for such an enterprise, and at first blush, the idea seems to hold water ' even if the roof of the building can't. After all, as the great urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote, 'New ideas come from old buildings.'

'It has tremendous potential for synergy with Olbrich Gardens,' says Hole. 'It's already a destination for visitors. There's already that wonderful retail renaissance on Atwood Avenue.'

Selkowe says that in her door-to-door campaigning, she's found public support. But the neighbors aren't the ones who need to be convinced. Among the doubters is Larry Palm.

'I feel that I'm obligated to keep an open mind,' says Palm. 'There is a frustration that there's already a public idea that it should be an arts incubator. Common Wealth Development has never said this idea will collapse if we don't get this, but it's clear it's their first priority.'

Palm thinks making this use work may require some level of hybridization: 'You would have some law firm office that would take up 20,000 square feet, just as an example, and the rest would be the arts incubator. That office would offset the lower rent that we would charge the artists.'

But for now he wants to keep other options on the table: 'If we only have the arts incubator as a proposal, we'll never know whether that was the right answer. It was the only answer.'

At least one other option has been out there for a couple of years: restaurateur Christopher Berge has floated the idea of making it a train station for high-speed rail, with shops and other businesses and a restaurant, all accessible by train, car and bicycle.

Barker, the reuse committee chair, is glad people are making specific suggestions. He says he'll challenge them to come up with something 'financially realistic and responsive to the criteria.'

The 'financially realistic' part might prove difficult. It'll cost at least $1.2 million to fix the building enough to keep it from falling over. To renovate it into a usable facility will likely run closer to $6 million, with the potential for costs to exceed that. The end user of Garver will also have to find creative ways to address parking, access (the current access crosses the bike trail and an active set of railroad tracks), and ongoing collaboration with Olbrich Gardens.

Cieslewicz has heard a wide range of ideas for the feed mill and surrounding land: retail, office, restaurant, maybe even a small performance space. Housing is less viable, since one of the committee's criteria will be to preserve most of the land as open land. But, says the mayor, 'I don't have one set of ideas that I want to impose on people.'

Working its way out

There is one thing that Cieslewicz does want to insist on, with regard to both the Garver and Royster-Clark sites: that transportation options be part of the discussion.

Both sites 'create greater opportunities for transit-oriented development,' he says. 'We add 2,500 residents a year. To the extent that you can put people in infill developments, you reduce the number of people commuting from the outskirts.'

Especially in the Royster-Clark location, there's a chance to build a place where people can walk, bike, bus or (if his dream comes true) streetcar to work. 'That doesn't mean people will live without cars,' says Cieslewicz. 'They're likely to live with one car instead of two or three, and that's a positive.'

Palm points out that the opportunities now awaiting on the city's east side follow the revitalization of State Street and the Capitol Square in recent years, with a boom in retail and new condos. 'If you look at the original development [of Madison], it started downtown, and it worked its way out,' he says. 'Now look at the redevelopment. It started downtown, and now it's moving out. These neighborhoods need to learn this.'

That's a central part of the equation for developer McGrath. 'What drives [east-side redevelopment] is the revival of neighborhoods,' he says, and that's a good thing. With a little gumption, cooperation and old-fashioned neighborly teamwork, 'You can take a place that looked really challenged and it can become a special place.'

It's all about moving forward ' deliberately and diligently. Says Barker, 'This is a tough problem, and we wanted people to understand the scope of the opportunity. We're going to have to live with [the final product] for a long, long time.'

But we don't want too much hand-wringing, warns McGrath. The only way the city will fail, he says, is if 'the debate goes on too long and people give up on the possibilities.'

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