When I started as mayor, I never thought I'd own and run a shopping mall.
But the Villager Mall on Park Street had fallen on hard times. The physical standards of the building had become so intolerable that they threatened to tear apart the effective Harambee partnership of service providers that was so key to the improvement of the south side and low-income families in the area.
I'll be honest. I was a hard sell. But south side Alder Tim Bruer never let up and finally he convinced me that city acquisition of the mall through our Community Development Authority was the right thing to do. It has been expensive and it has been a challenge. No question about those things.
But Tim Bruer was right. It has been a good investment for the city and its taxpayers. The Harambee partnership, while the organizational structure has gone through some necessary changes, is still together. Meanwhile, the physical space has been transformed. The new Goodman branch library is state of the art and four times the size of the tired old library that was in the mall. The Urban League has great new space, which it uses to emphasize economic progress for the community. And the mall itself has received a stunning facelift that has lifted up the entire neighborhood.
It's true that parking is a problem. I always felt that the solution was some sort of structured parking facility. But the truth is that a parking problem is not a bad thing to have in an urban area. What's death to a city is acres of unused surface parking lots. Tight parking means vibrance, it means there's a lot of activity. Some of that problem can be eased when the south part of the old building comes down, as it should.
So, for those who now question our investments at the Villager, in the heart of one of Madison's lowest income neighborhoods, my question is what would they have done? Left the same tired old, over-used library in place? Not helped the Urban League create its economic development center? Let the crumbling mall result in the dissolution of that great community service partnership in Harambee?
Sometimes, focusing only on dollars and cents makes no sense. Successful cities are made of people and partnerships, but places and the bricks and mortar that make them up can bolster people and partnerships. Why shouldn't a low-income neighborhood have high quality, beautiful spaces just like the one we've been creating at the Villager?