Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Edgewater predictions

Praise the lord, tomorrow (well, Wednesday morning) we will finally be done with the Edgewater.  Here are some predictions.

1. My money is on it passing. That’s been clear since this fall when the budget passed. The big hurdle is the 15-vote zoning change override. I think it makes it – Verveer, Rhodes-Conway, Rummel are ‘No’s. On the 14 vote Landmarks appeal, it’s probably Verveer, Rhodes-Conway, Rummel, Cnare, and Solomon as ‘No’s, as nothing has really changed from last time around except it’s gotten bigger. Maybe Cnare and Solomon join in on the 15 vote zoning protest petition, but it’s different criteria so who knows, but even if they do, it still doesn’t get to the 6 necessary to block the project.

Sanborn and or Pham-Remmele are the wild-cards here. They’re opposed to the TIF usage, but could care less about historic districts or what neighbors care about zoning. I think there are 11 votes for TIF on the council, so the only way to block the TIF is to join in on a different vote. Sanborn is probably too much of a stickler to do so, Pham-Remmele, well, she’s full of surprises.

Odds: 3 in 4, passes.

2. I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t get financing. A luxury hotel in Madison is a risk – especially in today’s economy. Presumably Hammes has things lined up, but when push comes to shove, investors are going to have to decide: will Madison be able to support a hotel at the level Hammes claims to aim for? Does the Monona Terrace train station, and the increased likelihood of a second Monona Terrace hotel actually happening, change the equation at all for the Edgewater?

Odds: 2 to 1, it gets funding – but that’s not a slam dunk. That said, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to have the project approved but then be in a zombie state trying to get funding. (See: Union Corners)

3. If it gets approved, it does serious damage to the nature of Madison’s historic districts, but it’s not a death blow. It’s a matter of trust. A historic district is a restrictive covenant – just like the craziness out in the suburbs that say all houses in a development shall use the same sort of siding. I couldn’t handle living in one of those sorts of neighborhoods, but to plenty of people it’s important that the neighborhood has a consistent look. Fine, more power to ’em. In full disclosure, I don’t think I could handle living in a historic district, either. The first thing I’d do when I moved in would be to stick a solar water heater on the roof and upgrade windows and doors to be maximally energy efficient. I’m sure you can do so in both an energy-efficient and historically-sensitive manner, but I doubt you can do so without extra cost, and that’s not a cost I’m willing to pay. I’m not willing to have that level of detail dictated to me.

And that’s the point of the historic district – if someone invests in a property in a historic district, the value of their property, both as a financial and emotional investment, depends on everything else in the district acting in good faith to also value the existing character of the district.

The Edgewater, regardless if you think the hotel itself adds or detracts from neighborhood, undoubtable shakes people’s confidence in the sanctity of a historic district. If the Landmarks Commission can be completely overruled, then it’s not of much comfort to anyone who thinks it is a strong protection.

Does the Edgewater immediately destroy all of the improvements Mansion Hill homeowners have put into their homes? Of course not. The council isn’t going to order everyone to put vinyl siding over the brickface of every home in Mansion Hill. But, if you own a home in a historic district and have spent the time to restore it, but live next to a couple of buildings that haven’t, are you now nervous about new ways those buildings may evolve in the future? You bet you are.

Would Madison historic districts be in the free and clear even if the Edgewater is turned down? Of course not. They’re always going to be under pressure – finding people with the patience and the funding to fully restore older homes is difficult. More homes are deteriorating faster than new owners are restoring them. There’s no guarantee that there will be enough left to justify a historic district in a generation or two.

There is a public benefit to having historic districts, and even if I don’t want to live in one I appreciate that we have them. At a minimum, a good historic section of town should be a source of civic pride. The diversity of the housing stock makes it easier to attract a diversity of people. In Madison we’re fortunate to have historic homes, cookie-cutter tract housing, lakefront homes, upscale condos, small workforce-housing bungalows,  highrise dense apartments, rowhouses, mature suburb ranchhomes, and more.  Short of houseboats, pretty much anything you want to live in we’ve got.

We need to think of new ways to preserve that diversity of housing stock, and in particular, how do we stop losing ground in our historic districts? I don’t have a definitive answer, and I don’t think anyone does.  And in that, overruling the Landmarks commission will at best make things no more difficult, but likley more difficult.

4. We’ll regret the loss of the view, but it’s not the obscenity that is the Dane County Courthouse. Ultimately, we’ll just get used to it. I still get angry every time I drive up John Nolen Drive, and am counting down the years til we can tear down the Courthouse. I don’t think I’ll feel that way about the Edgewater Tower. I don’t ever think I’ll like it, either,  but as people move to town they’ll never realize there was a time without it.

5. The “public” terrace won’t feel particularly public and of the Edgewater/Union/Monona terraces, the Edgewater will be the least-used of the three. The Monona Terrace rooftop has never really felt that inviting, and every time I go there I always feel like I’m not welcome unless I have some business or other reason to be there. The Edgewater Terrace, nestled in between the hotel, is always going to feel like its part of the hotel.  Here’s the test: can Scanner Dan hang out there all day without being shoo’d away? My guess is no.

6. The economic benefits of the Edgewater will be hard to detect. Yes, it will have some impact during construction, and that’s good. But after that, it’s not much of an economic jumpstart. The jobs that it creates are mostly low-wage and the multiplier doesn’t go very far. It doesn’t inspire new businesses to grow around it. (The closest thing is some regional management company thing Hammes may locate in Madison.) The additional travelers to Madison, if they materialize, will only have a modest impact because there simply aren’t that many of them. Much as I love Madison, the people who are going to stay at the new Edgewater are people who were going to come here anyway, and will now stay at the nicest hotel in town (think rich parents of UW students, etc.) I just don’t believe that there are that many people who say “Oh, you know, now that there’s this hotel in Madison WI, I guess I’m willing to go.” I believe Hammes when they say there’s a market for a higher-end hotel in Madison, but I don’t believe them when they say it’s going to bring new people to Madison.

It’s biggest impact is likely to be serendipitous, ie we had a highend-enough hotel to persuade someone with a bunch of money who decides for whatever project he or she is working on that Madison is a serious enough place to do it. (The great thing about that prediction is I can take as long as I want to see if it turns out)

The money we’re investing in the Edgewater is four BioAg gateways. I doubt the Edgewater comes even close to the impact as one BioAg gateway.

7. The TIF money we’re locking in here will come back to bite us later. I have to believe that somehow, in the next few years, another project will come along that creates more jobs in the downtown or achieves some bigger civic aim that won’t be able to be done without TIF – and with all of the extra cash from TID32 being redirected into the Edgewater, there simply won’t be the money available to do it. I don’t mind putting some TIF into improving public access at an improved Edgewater, but this just ties the hands of the Common Council for the rest of the decade. I think that’s a tremendous opportunity cost and we’re going to regret it.

There’s still the DNR, tax credits, and if there’s a legal challenge to be waged I’m sure Fred will give it a try, but that’s all mostly out of the city’s hands. If it passes tomorrow, then there’s still the management agreement, but that doesn’t seem like it will derail the project. It will be good to have most of this behind us, so we can start to see how much damage this has done to our processes. Mostly, I want city staff to be able to get back to the Downtown Plan, to focus on East Wash, and on think about transportation issues. Those are all far more important to the future of the city than the Edgewater.

New Development at Johnson and Bassett

The corner of W Johnson and Bassett St (behind the Aberdeen) may finally have something happen. For now it’s just an informational presentation at the Urban Design Commission, so it’s not a sure thing, but this is a pretty important step. I’ll spare you the 40 meg download of the UDC file, and show you the three images that tell you most everything you need to know.

The site (inside the yellow polygon):

The description:

The massing:

Some first thoughts: Boring design, but it’s just a massing diagram and not a final design, so hopefully it gets better. It’s the right scale for the area (we wanted to put all of the high rises together).

If the hotel portion is meant to serve the UW, it’s not where I’d put it. I’d put something down by the WID  – vacate Lorch St and build on the triangle  of Randall/University/Johnson where Campus Drive splits, and serve WID/MIR, the new Wisconsin Energy Institute, and the Engineering/Life Sciences part of campus. [Edit 2010-05-17: The WID site would be a different scale hotel with a smaller number of rooms. On thinking about it the next morning, it’s not clear to me that the room count would be high enough to economically justify a project there. I think there needs to be a standalone hotel in the area – I’m still horrified by the rooms at the old Union South and am not prepared to ask people to stay in the new Union.]

The downtown hotel market is going to have a tough time absorbing these new 163 rooms, the just-opened 151 room Hyatt, and most likely the new ~100 rooms at the Edgewater. (For comparison, the DoubleTree is also 163 rooms.) Maybe as a UW-serving hotel it’s easier.  I’d also be a bit leery of a hotel connected to a residential apartment building, particularly one that’s likely to be dominated by undergraduates – hopefully they can isolate the fire alarms. I sure as hell would never have my parents stay there.

For now, it’s a good deal for students – the high rises are very popular, and having more options is good. I’m a bit concerned about how these buildings will work long-term: what sort of shape will they be in circa 2035, but I guess that’s not a question for today.

There’s also a question of what this does to the older housing stock in Madison. 10 to 15 years ago, the only high rises were La Ciel and La Ville, so virtually everyone lived in old houses, but that’s obviously changed. The building adds 262 bedrooms, let’s say half of them will actually double up in rooms, so figure 393 people will live in the building. (I have no idea if a 1.5 multiplier is at all correct.) From a Google map, I count about 35 houses on the 500 block of W Mifflin. Many of those are big or have multiple apartments, so let’s say they’re an average of 7 people per house, so 245 people on the block. If this building is built, then there will be essentially a block and a half worth of new vacancies in (presumably) older houses. This is good for renters, and bad for landlords. Things are going to change, and that doesn’t always bring out the best in Madison.