News Column

The Wisconsin State Journal Chris Rickert column

July 8, 2014

By Chris Rickert, The Wisconsin State Journal

July 08--"This kind of activity is crucial to revitalizing the Square." -- Brad Binkowski, principal, Urban Land Interests

I'm one of those sentimental types who believes a city's heart lies in its downtown. No matter how attractive its neighborhoods and outlying commercial areas, a city with a half-empty and shoddy-looking downtown is a hard city to love.

Madison's Downtown is a big part of what makes Madison worth loving. It also makes Urban Land Interests' bid for taxpayer help for a major reworking of the AnchorBank property less about revitalization and more about helping a developer out of a jam.

ULI had proposed a smaller project requiring no taxpayer help that would have wrapped the AnchorBank building at West Main and South Hamilton streets in glass, added office space and repaired the parking ramp across Carroll Street.

Then the firm had a more in-depth assessment done of the 49-year-old ramp and found that fixing it up would cost more than the firm had anticipated, Binkowski said, or "way over $3 million."

Suddenly, the project was no longer a financial winner.

Now, ULI is asking for $33 million in tax incremental financing (TIF) to help pay for a larger project that would make over the AnchorBank building and build a 548-space underground parking garage and a nine-story building on the site of the old ramp, according to a Monday memo by TIF coordinator Joe Gromacki that cites a $13 million financing gap and $20 million more for "mortgage financing."

ULI also wants the city's Community Development Authority to take over the newly built garage and lease it back to ULI, keeping the structure off the tax rolls for 27 years, according to the memo.

No doubt, Downtown parking is expensive to build, and ULI's new, grander plan would be an improvement over what occupies the south end of the Capitol Square now.

"That part of the Square is totally dead," Binkowski said. "It's a time warp."

But if the proliferation elsewhere in the Downtown of giant cranes, big holes in the ground and workers in hard hats suggests anything, it's that the AnchorBank area wouldn't stay dead forever -- and it wouldn't need much, if any, city help to come to life.

Approved requests for Downtown TIF assistance over the last decade have been less expensive -- in the neighborhood of $3 million to $4 million -- and rare. Gromacki said that of current or proposed Downtown building projects, only three are counting on TIF: ULI's, a Judge Doyle Square hotel and a mixed-use project at 309 W. Johnson St., that's getting about $3 million in TIF.

"There are several that are not requesting TIF," he said.

The negative response to an early proposal that included a $16.8 million TIF request from Judge Doyle Square developers also doesn't bode well for ULI's request. Judge Doyle Square and part of the AnchorBank property share the same TIF district.

Nor is the controversial, and ultimately failed, bid in 2010-11 for $16 million in TIF for The Edgewater hotel's redevelopment a good sign for ULI.

Binkowski said his firm's already put a "fair amount of energy, time and money" into the AnchorBank redevelopment, but that without TIF assistance, it won't do anything with the property.

That would be unfortunate for ULI, but it probably wouldn't make Madison any less lovable in the long run.


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Source: Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)

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