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Timelines, money limit rooftop garden study

By Paul Snyder

Madison leaders agree a rooftop garden on the new central library project is a fine concept unless it raises the project cost or delays planning.

“If it becomes a price tag issue in this climate, I think it could be a problem,” said Alderman Michael Schumacher. “I’m fighting for services and basic needs right now. In this kind of an instance, even a couple hundred thousand dollars is a substantial bump.”

Bill Kunkler, executive vice president for Madison-based The Fiore Companies Inc., said the company will spend the next three months shaping plans for the proposed $37 million central library.

During that time, city staff will study whether a garden will work on top of the project.

Mark Olinger, the city’s director of planning and development, said he does not expect the city work to delay Fiore’s planning, but there are no guarantees.

“The question of how it could be designed is one thing,” he said. “There’s a lot to consider in terms of load, cost and access. But the other question is whether there’s an expectation by the community gardeners that they become involved in planning.”

That expectation is there, said Jane Anne Morris, a member of the Downtown Community Gardens Group, which first lobbied for the rooftop project.

“We never have thought we would run the show,” she said. “But, frankly, we would like to be working with them on the plans. We’re the gardeners.”

Public involvement in planning opens the door to meetings and hearings that could delay the project. Kunkler said the library’s $37 million estimate is based on the still-soft building market. If there are no delays in planning or approvals, construction could start by September 2010.

“But every month is dangerous,” he said, referring to how temporary delays could shift the project estimate. “I don’t think anyone feels as though it will be a problem if city staff can work on a parallel plan with us.”

Fiore already has an alternative proposal for a central library with a green roof. Kunkler said that would add about $250,000 to the project.

A rooftop garden, according to Fiore’s preliminary estimates, could add $3 million to the project cost.

Morris said she will lobby for every penny if that’s the cost because the value to the character of the downtown area is immeasurable.

That may be, Kunkler said, but a cash-strapped city government likely will be more concerned about the hard numbers.

“Just because it would be neat to do does not make it prudent,” he said.

The Common Council approved the feasibility study in the city’s 2010 budget, Schumacher said, because it came at no cost to the city and with no directive to build a rooftop garden.

As soon as the study ties more taxpayer money to the project, he said, support might wane.

“I like it conceptually, and I don’t dismiss it out of hand,” he said. “If logistically, someone is willing to donate money for a garden out there, fine. But unless the costs are negligible or minimal to the city, I don’t think it will move forward.”

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