Developers and Madison’s mayor are turning up the heat on city leaders to think big for a new Central Library, but the project will only go as far as the money will take it.
“You can’t just ignore the costs or the economy we’re in right now,” said Tripp Widder, president of the city’s Library Board.
But as the city’s Library Surplus Committee juggles three options for the downtown library — two large, mixed-use proposals and a rehab and renovation option for the existing building — Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is encouraging leaders not to simply choose the most cost-effective option.
“The mayor wants us planning for the long term,” said Cieslewicz’s spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson. “He doesn’t want to rule out something that will be there for generations just because there are spending concerns right now.”
The committee will continue deliberations Wednesday.
The most cost-efficient option is renovating the library. Preliminary rehab estimates run up to $14 million. The city also is considering proposals from Madison-based companies T. Wall Properties LLC and The Fiore Cos. Inc. for mixed-use projects, the library portions of which are estimated at $17.5 million from T. Wall and $43 million from Fiore.
Widder said Wall last week offered $3 million in financing if the city selects Wall’s proposal, but the library foundation said efforts to raise private money for the project could take years.
Meanwhile, Steve Holzhauer, a principal in Eppstein Uhen Architects Inc.’s Madison office, which is working with Fiore, said settling on rehab and renovation of the existing library would provide no new tax base for the city.
“Rehab is a fallback, and it’s the worst decision they could make,” he said. “I can always rehab my kitchen. Or I can go gut it and do something new.”
Alderman Larry Palm, a member of the Library Surplus Committee, disagreed.
“The worst thing would be not doing anything,” he said. “The next worst thing would be to make a decision to move on a wonderful proposal, wait three years to raise $10 million, and then wait however long it takes to cover the remaining gap.”
Holzhauer said the city could lose a wonderful opportunity if it opts out of a larger proposal.
“There’s this whole ripple effect that can take place when you’re paralyzed by the urge to save,” he said. “We have to prove we can’t afford something before we just give up on it.”
Michael Knetter, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison business school, said there is a social pressure amid the recession for people to pull back spending habits, even if they are not cash-strapped.
If that kind of mindset steers library committee and Common Council decisions, Holzhauer said, long-term improvements could be hampered.
“You should shoot for the best you can get,” he said. “And if you’re worried about being thrifty, you get boxed into particular decisions.”
So while pressure from the mayor and developers to dream big is likely to persist, Palm said, committee and council members must look at the bigger picture.
“A lot of people are throwing a lot of things at us right now,” he said. “If the mayor gets whatever dream he’s looking at, he still has to figure out how to plunk down those dollars, and he hasn’t been articulate on that.
“Any of the proposals have their plusses and minuses, but, in the end, there will be people voting on the most cost-effective option.”