A few notes about my BH column

My piece in the Badger Herald today made three claims that need a bit more explanation, in details and length that just weren’t appropriate for the print version. They all concern the redevelopment of the corner of Francis and Johnson, the current home of the Nitty Gritty.

First, here’s what I was thinking – the corner of Frances and Johnson has three buildings:

545 W Johnson St:


Then, the Nitty Gritty itself, technically on N Frances St

The Gritty

And finally, a small apartment building on N Frances St

North Frances

There’s a large parking lot behind the three that completes the corner of the block, with the same footprint as the Palisades just down the block. Collectively, they bring in about $50,000 a year in property taxes a year, compared to the $254,000 the Palisades pays.

So, the first objection to address: The Nitty Gritty as a historic building. (I don’t think anyone would object to the other two buildings going away, especially 545 W Johnson). The building itself is about 110 years old, but I don’t think it is distinctive enough architecture to qualify it as a historic building just from how it was built, so we need to look at the history of the site instead.  If I was more of a Madison historian, I might know more historic details of the building, but its main claim to fame is its connection to the 1960s and 70s protest movements, in particular it was the place the plot to bomb Sterling Hall was hatched. I can’t speak to its role as a headquarters/gathering location for the protestors, but at least according to the Gritty’s website it played a role there.

Madison should find a way to maintain physical linkage to those times, but I’m not sure that landmarking/preserving the Nitty Gritty would be the best way to do it. I especially don’t think that the bombers use of the building qualifies it as something worth preserving.

A better historic connection to the 60s would be to preserve the character of “Miffland”, ie the 400 and 500 block of Mifflin Street.  It’s currently mostly dominated by 2 or 3 flat homes, with the large porches and good street interaction. I think you could make a good case for a Neighborhood Conservation District there, if not a Historic District. The Daily Cardinal makes a false choice today – you can have development and progress on the block, without having to  change the character of the block. As some of those structures reach the end of their useful life, they can be replaced, but only by structures with similar sizes and characteristics. For the buildings still in good shape, they get rehabbed. David Waugh likes to point out that when older homes are located in areas where developers try and put together a couple of parcels to build something bigger, the economic incentives to invest in the upkeep of the building vanishes – it becomes a better deal to let the property deteriorate until someone comes along and says “these are terrible, let’s build something big on top of them”, and sell then. If it’s up-front agreed to that this demolition won’t be permitted, the incentive to allow the property to deteriorate diminishes, because the exit strategy of major redevelopment is not available.

If over the next decade or two, more and more of the downtown moves into larger, multi-unit buildings without separate entrances, so be it. However, we should preserve “Miffland” as a monument to a defining moment in Madison’s and our nation’s history. It seems to me a to be a far better way to connect than to remembering the booth where a murderous act was hatched.

The second objection that might be raised to my plan is we don’t want more 10-12 story towers in the downtown area, and there’s a valid point to be made there. Madison has established the Johnson/Gorham/University corridor as a sort of “canyon” of large buildings. Building on this corner doesn’t expand the canyon, it just fills in the wall a bit more – it’s between the Palisades (11? stories), and Witte Hall at 10 floors. Madison has been at a pretty steady pace of adding about one of these buildings a year for the past decade, and its had a remarkable effect on keeping downtown housing prices low and offering students and other residents more choices. They seem to remain popular with students, and there would have to be studies to see how many more of these things we can build, but at least from a zoning or city policy position there’s nothing that says we’re as dense as we want to be. This might also be a perfect time to build one, because construction costs are at very low rates, and if you can get financing, money is pretty cheap. Given the success of all the past towers, building another one seems like it’s about as low-risk as you can get in today’s real estate market.

Finally, I think people might object to my suggestion of using TIF money as part of the project. Let me be clear, the idea behind using TIF is to serve two goals: unlock the potential of that corner, and to fulfill what I think is a good public policy goal of putting a large establishment in University Square to serve Kohl Center events. On the first point, I don’t think anything is going to happen on that corner unless the Gritty moves – it seems unlikely to fail as a business anytime soon, and it’s even less likely that the current or new owners would just decide to walk away. Given that we can’t simply eminent domain our way onto that corner to build a new development, I think it meets the “but for” test of TIF help cover the cost of relocating the Gritty in order to better utilize that corner. They may not need it, if they make enough money from selling the land as part of the tower project, but that’s not a given. On the second point, it also meets the “But For” test to encourage a business to move specifically into the corner of University Square, especially if there’s a half-million dollars of construction work that has to go into the space just to undo what’s already been done.  (Apparently there are some crazy things in the current, half-built designs, like bathrooms right along the Johnson street frontage, which seems completely dumb). TIF money shouldn’t be used lightly, but there’s at least a plausible set of reasons of why it is appropriate for this plan.


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