CD Smith Construction Services
A rendering of the Metcalfe's plan for the 800 block of East Washington Avenue.
One thing that's true about cities is that when you build something it lasts for awhile. Sometimes you make a mistake, and you're stuck with what gets built for decades. Sometimes you get it right, but it falls to the wrecking ball prematurely. But given the useful life of most buildings, you can expect a big structure to stand for at least half a century.
So, when it comes to the city-owned 800 block of East Washington Avenue, we should entertain all reasonable options. That's why the city should reopen the request for proposals process on the block.
Here's a quick synopsis of what happened. In my last year as mayor, I pushed for the city to acquire land along East Wash owned at the time by the Don Miller car dealership. It was prime but underutilized real estate, but the parcels were too big for any one local developer to take on. So, the thought was to acquire it all and then parcel it up into smaller, more manageable pieces.
After I left office, the city completed a request for proposals process and selected Urban Land Interests (ULI) for the 800 block. (Two other developers were selected for other blocks in the project area.)
ULI's proposal is a good one. It contemplates a mixed-use project with space for high tech companies (a primary goal of the East Wash redevelopment plan), some housing, possibly a small grocery store, and more. ULI drives a hard bargain and they can be difficult to deal with, but they always produce high-quality, successful projects in the end.
Having said that, I was happy to see grocer and city visionary Tim Metcalfe put out a more recent and equally exciting proposal for the block. Metcalfe would build a 60,000 square foot grocery store with an urban farm on the roof, a hotel, office and commercial space, and some housing. The office and commercial space could also accommodate the kind of techie businesses we're looking for there.
On process alone, it appears that ULI should be allowed to go forward. ULI followed all the rules, submitted a plan at considerable cost, won the competition fair and square, and now could be near the completion of conversations with the city. By contrast, the Metcalfe proposal came in outside the RFP process and long after ULI had been selected.
Mayor Paul Soglin has said that he wants to see if the city can come to a final agreement with ULI before reopening the process. That's the right position for a mayor to take. I'd probably do the same thing.
But I'm not mayor anymore; I'm a lowly blogger. And for me, it comes down to a question of process versus tangible bricks and mortar that will last for a couple of generations or more. Before we lock ourselves in to one path, don't we owe it to future generations to take another look?
Would that be unfair to ULI? Maybe. But the alder who represents the area, Bridget Maniaci, has raised concerns that neighborhood reps were not assigned to the committee negotiating with ULI. Thanks to Maniaci, the neighborhood will get their chance to weigh in on how they'd like to see things go forward at tonight's Madison Common Council meeting.
In the last analysis, the question isn't what's fair to the developer; the question is what's best for the city?
Let's give Tim Metcalfe a chance to make his case.