It would create hundreds of good-paying construction jobs at a time when some trades are experiencing a 30% unemployment rate. It would add a million dollars in annual tax revenue to a shrinking tax base. It would restore an iconic 1940s building and take down an awful 1970s addition, opening up public views of Lake Mendota. And it would dramatically improve public access to the lake with a grand staircase and a rooftop plaza.
And yet the Hammes Co.'s proposed $93 million redevelopment of the Edgewater hotel is struggling to get the city's approval.
This is due in part to the complicated nature of the project. It's a big building in a historic district close to a lake. It requires tax incremental finance support to make it work.
The project also requires reviews or approvals from the Landmarks Commission, Urban Design Commission, Plan Commission and Board of Estimates. And ultimately all of those pieces must be approved by the Common Council (and possibly the Zoning Board of Appeals).
Back in December, in its first real test of support, the council voted overwhelmingly in favor of the project with a 12-to-5 vote to overturn a decision of the Landmarks Commission not to grant a variance. But a supermajority of 14 votes was needed under our ordinances, so the project remained stalled.
The project is currently scheduled to be back before the council for no less than five approvals in the next few weeks. Some approvals will require a simple majority, while the Landmarks vote still needs 14 votes after the council agreed to reconsider its earlier vote.
Why is this so hard? The root of the problem is that our system has parsed the project into several individual decisions, each of which has its own set of decision-makers and standards. This has made it impossible for most players to act as policymakers.
A policymaker would ask this question: When I weigh the jobs, tax base, historic restoration, improvement of public views and access to the lake, and the positive impact on our business climate in the midst of a deep recession against the fact that the building is considered by some to be rather large for the site, should the project go forward?
I've been an early and strong supporter of the project because, when I ask myself that question, the answer is a resounding yes. But virtually nobody else has had the freedom to act as a policymaker.
For example, the Landmarks Commission struggled with an ordinance that forced it to weigh the proposed building's "visual compatibility" with its surroundings. Fair enough, but then the same ordinance made it ignore a similarly sized building right next door simply because it was a few feet further then the arbitrary 200-foot boundary the ordinance defines as the "visually related area." What is it about being 201 feet away that puts a building outside of the visually related area?
And when this decision got to the council, alders had to sit as an almost judicial body and weigh the hardship to the property owner against any damage that might be done to the historic district. At least two alders said they couldn't vote for the override because they felt the owner hadn't proved enough hardship, regardless of how they felt about the project as a whole.
Without these strictures, the Landmarks Commission may very well have approved the project or the council overridden its failure to do so.
So we've got a project with multiple benefits, which is strongly supported by a majority of the council and the mayor and, I sense, the public at large, and yet we struggle to get final approval.
My hope is that when members of the council vote on the project, they will act as policymakers. If a majority of the council concludes that we should forgo all the benefits simply because the building is too big, well, I would strenuously disagree with that conclusion, but I also would have to accept it.
If, on the other hand, they conclude that the jobs, tax revenues, historic restoration, public access and positive investment message trump concerns about the size of the building, then we will have won a major victory for labor, for taxpayers and for the future of Madison.
Dave Cieslewicz is mayor of Madison.