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Madison leaders lament project losses

By Paul Snyder

Madison is suffering tough losses in its battle to attract private development.

“Our approvals process has to be streamlined,” said Tim Cooley, the city’s economic development director. “It just has to. We don’t have a choice anymore.”

The Common Council’s decision Wednesday to kill a $93 million redevelopment of the Edgewater Hotel was compounded a few hours later when city officials learned Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. will abandon its 16-screen movie theater proposal for Madison’s east side and instead build in Sun Prairie.

“It’s a real double-whammy,” said Madison Alderman Joe Clausius, who represents the district where Marcus would have built the theater. “It’s sure been frustrating the last couple of days.”

Clausius blamed the city’s approval process for the Marcus decision, arguing Urban Design Commission parking requirements that could have forced construction of a parking ramp might have pushed Marcus away.

But Marcus spokesman Carlo Petrick said economics, not city requirements, led to the switch to Sun Prairie.

“Sun Prairie has a more advantageous site to develop in,” Petrick said. “The Madison project would have been part of a larger development that included other commercial buildings.”

Marcus originally planned to develop a 26-acre site in Madison with the theater as an anchor for other retail and restaurant spaces. Although Marcus received preliminary approval from the city’s Urban Design Commission, Plan Commission and Common Council, the company never developed a detailed site plan for the project.

In August, Marcus acquired an option to buy 16 acres in Sun Prairie’s Prairie Lakes retail area. Neil Stechschulte, the city’s economic development director, said Prairie Lake has a new Target shopping center, so there was less pressure for Marcus to attract new development.

“They could start as early as spring,” he said. “All they have to do now is get their building permit, and as soon as they pull the trigger, I imagine stores and restaurants would be putting forward proposals within the next 60 days.”

Madison needs that kind of development, Cooley said. But local residents and neighborhood groups resist change and redevelopment, he said.

“We are also market-driven,” Cooley said. “We can make demands about certain things, but the truth is right now it’s a buyer’s market and businesses are going to go where it makes sense. But there are neighborhoods right now that need redevelopment and the people there say, ‘We don’t mind it the way it is.’

“How do you get around that perspective for an immediate, short-term benefit?”

The answer, Cooley said, is to remove the hurdles that push businesses away. That includes loosening development requirements and deciding how much influence neighborhoods have over the process.

“I heard council members during the Edgewater debate say, ‘Well, I got e-mails from 50 people in my district that oppose the project, so my district is opposed,’” he said. “No it’s not. Fifty people are.”

The 26 acres Marcus targeted in Madison are valuable and developable, Clausius said. The city, he said, cannot afford to let interested companies slip away.

“We have way too many restrictions,” he said. “This should be a wake-up call to our economic development team and the Urban Design Commission.”


  1. Excellent points! Some alders in Madison have decided the loudest fifty voices are all that matters on an issue. Many people may support or oppose a project but not be willing or able to attend meetings to have their voices heard. Madison has been taken over by people who think any development is a bad development. Even when no old houses are being torn down, even when the Edgewater would be tucked behind an equally tall NGL building, even when the city as a whole would benefit, a few hundred committed opponents can offset thousands of indifferent supporters. I was really surprised at how many people came up to me after the council vote to express their disappointment in losing the Edgewater project. None of these people showed up at meetings or expressed their views to me prior to the vote, but they all wanted to see this project happen. The process needs to be streamlined so that the best interests of the city as a whole are given more consideration than the best interests of the most “passionate”.

  2. This proposal was defeated for several reasons. First, betting $16M on a high-end hotel in the midst of a national recession seemed unreasonable to many. Second, even absent the recession, a lot of citizens are growing tired of loans to the wealthy while basic social service programs and worker wages are being cut. Third, the Landmarks Commission followed its assigned duty and correctly found that the proposed buildings, when looked at from an unambiguous perspective, violated the guidelines intended to protect historic neighborhoods.

    Fourth, the mayor was heavy-handed in his use of power and attempted to sidestep traditional procedures in order to win approval of the wounded proposal. Madison citizens like their historic districts and want them protected, not subjected to passing political winds. It’s for that reason the Commission was created.

    Finally, making extreme allegations about the opposition (“Madison has been taken over by people who think any development is a bad development.”) serves neither side in the debate. Madison is not going to live or die on the Edgewater proposal. We will survive because we do have an interested and lively citizenry willing to argue their beliefs.

    And proposals for so-called “streamlining” the process smell to me like proposals for limiting democratic debate, a process which is nearly always messy but serves up the best decisions in the long run.

    Daniel Roberts

  3. I am sad to see that, once again, people’s lack of support for some particular development is invoked to suggest that these people are all “anti-development”. It is a sad commentary on the state of things that officials are perplexed and frustrated when people notice something is not in the public interest. The public interest and some particular economic interest are not the same thing. (Better to just demonize those bad, anti-development people than to acknowledge the truth of this, I guess.)

    This is an especially biased report — positioning the “loss” of the Marcus Theater against the Edgewater decision, and making it seem like Marcus went elsewhere because Madison doesn’t support business. Unfortunately, the quote from the Marcus spokesperson doesn’t support this implication. But, what the heck? Maybe some people won’t notice. Bias is also evident in the choice of language — with Council “killing” the proposal. Why isn’t the developer blamed for killing the proposal, by not being interested in working to find acceptable alternatives?

    Finally, Tim Cooley’s comments, if quoted accurately, are disturbing. Research in history and economic sociology shows that communities do not “win” or necessarily benefit long-term by bending over backwards to be what business or industry wants. The record is out there, if we choose to look at it — I’m thinking of Tami Friedman’s work in particular.

  4. Thanks to Daniel Roberts, I couldn’t have said it better myself. And if 50 people call, many more are thinking the same thing.

  5. The key passage in the article is “Marcus spokesman Carlo Petrick said economics, not city requirements, led to the switch to Sun Prairie.”

    So Tim Cooley and Joe Clausius are just plain off base.

    If Tim Cooley doesn’t like the messy democracy we have in Madison because he’d rather have an easy job giving into every Tom, **** and Harriet developer that wants to deface our city, he’s welcome to leave and I’d be happy to sponsor his going away party.

    If Joe Clausius is right in saying “[t]he 26 acres Marcus targeted in Madison are valuable and developable,” then Marcus, not the city, blew it and somebody else will come along to develop them – and to do so won’t need from the many alders and the city administration in developers’ pockets all sorts of subsidies and schemes to side-step citizen input and controls on development.

  6. It must be frustrating for Mr. Cooley to lose the Marcus deal and since he is new to the job, he might feel a little uneasy . Personally, I think it is a bad business decision for Marcus because now everyone on the Isthmus that wants to see a blockbuster will go to Star Cinema because it will be the closest. As for the Edgewater, it
    s like trying to force an elephant through a keyhole. Dan is right, this recession should have people crying for investments that give long term jobs to our citizens. Perhaps it is because of the recession that some have fairy dust in their eyes when they look at the Edgewater proposal. If it were to be built, and the city finds itself even deeper in recession, perhaps they will let citizens without jobs live at the shiny new palace on the lake.

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