Susan Schmitz thinks downtown Madison may end up paying a price for its many years of success.
"We don't know what it's really like to have a downturn," says Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc. "We've been a little bit complacent [because] we've been somewhat recession-proof. Maybe that time is over."
That's one reason Schmitz sees developing a new downtown plan as critical to keeping the area strong. She frames the challenge as a question: "What do we do to keep that momentum going in terms of keeping people living, working and playing downtown?"
Work on the downtown plan, the first in nearly 20 years, began last April and is expected to be completed by June. The city is still gathering recommendations and refining particulars.
In its current form, the plan calls for adding higher-density development, improving lake access and increasing arts and entertainment attractions. To support these amenities, there needs to be a critical mass of people living downtown - people who will buy concert tickets, browse stores and keep the city's core vital.
But with condo sales slumping and the Overture Center struggling, Schmitz sees a need for extra steps.
"We could still use more people living downtown," she says. "The plan needs to talk about tools to make this happen."
Schmitz, who has headed DMI since 1999, thinks the city should be more aggressive in courting potential developers, especially given the recent economic downturn: "It's important, at this time especially, that our policy is flexible enough to deal with the changes."
Schmitz wants the city to increase its use of economic tools, like tax incremental financing (TIF), to create incentives for new growth. Currently there are several downtown TIF districts, used to provide developers with money to fill financing gaps.
But Mark Olinger, the city's director of planning, adds a caveat: "It's been the sense of the city that more money, as in just more money, isn't the answer," he says. "The Madison way is, we'll help you through the process."
To that end, Olinger says, the city's 2009 budget includes funds for a staffer to help shepherd people through the development process, plus $125,000 for additional marketing.
Susan Schmitz thinks the city also needs to examine the way it works with developers at a fundamental level, to "step up and work closer" with them. She feels the city lacks a sense of urgency when it comes to development, and that the process of securing the requisite approvals is still too complex.
For example, Schmitz points to the failure in 2006 of a proposal by Gary Gorman to develop the site of the Don Miller car dealership on East Washington Avenue.
"The developer and the city parted ways, and the project never happened," she says. "It was a missed opportunity."
Gorman backed away from the project after the city offered him $2 million in TIF funds to bridge a financing gap when he thought he was entitled to $6.5 million.
Since then, Gorman has not done any new projects in Madison; he says it's simply not worth his time when he can work instead with more development-friendly cities.
"There's an awful lot of communities that are aggressively seeking investment," he says. "With the shortage of capital out there right now, we're seeking to do business in [those] communities."
Olinger acknowledges "there was a disagreement with the use of TIF funds" on the Gorman project, but adds that he's never, in his 11 years as planning director, seen a good project fall through.
Still, developer Todd McGrath, whose recent projects include Nolen Shore condominiums, agrees that doing business in Madison is more difficult than in other communities.
"In Madison, it's a much more complicated process to get a project approved," he says. "It takes years, not months."
McGrath also questions the downtown plan's preliminary recommendations for more high-density projects at a time when sales are slow at existing condominiums and financing for new development has dried up.
"It wouldn't be feasible in the short run," he says. "The city should consider alternatives with less density that take into account market conditions. You can have a vision of what you want, but it has to be supported."
Olinger says he's aware of how optimistic the plan looks in light of recent economic events. But it's difficult to build last-minute contingencies into long-range plans.
"Here's the challenge we have in planning: We're not nimble enough to respond to market conditions," he says. "[We] are planning for things there is no market for now, but that might not be true 24 months from now."
Even if Schmitz's call for change goes unheeded, she hopes the plan will give the city confidence to go ahead with ambitious projects. "[Planning and development staff] know a good project when they see it," she says. "The city needs to make sure when they see that kind of an opportunity they take it."
Get with the plan
Madison nascent downtown plan, based on the work of city planning staff with input from the public, will guide development in the central city for the next 20 to 30 years. It deals with several aspects of urban planning, including historic preservation, land use, housing and transportation.
Currently the city is still using the "Downtown 2000" plan crafted in 1989.
The new plan is currently about halfway done, with the city developing recommendations based on public input.
In addition to public meetings, the city has set up a downtown plan office to receive input. Located at 125 W. Mifflin St., the office is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Information is also available at