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Madison Central Library plan on life support

By Paul Snyder

The development team pitching a new central library for downtown Madison will meet Thursday with city leaders to discuss what is becoming a bleak future for the project.

“We’re pretty far apart in terms of our perceptions on how this should move forward,” said Bill Kunkler, executive vice president of Madison-based The Fiore Cos. Inc. “We’re miles apart. It’s a low possibility we’re going to move forward as we originally planned.”

Madison – Project Management Consultant Services

The team Fiore put together consists of Milwaukee-based Irgens Development Partners LLC as a development partner, the Madison office of Eppstein Uhen Architects Inc. as designer and J.H. Findorff & Son Inc., Madison, as general contractor.

Fiore/Irgens had proposed a project in which the development team designs and builds the library’s exterior on land Fiore owns on West Washington Avenue. Fiore would then turn the project over to the city to build the interior.

Kunkler said the fees the team would get for that work would then be used to buy and redevelop the city’s existing central library site on West Mifflin Street into a mixed-use project.

But city staff in the last few months considered turning the entire project into a public works job, which would break up the development team, Kunkler said, and cut off the fees Fiore/Irgens would use to redevelop the existing library. If that happens, he said, the company has no interest in buying the existing library site.

That information sparked Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz on Tuesday to alert city staff and the Common Council through e-mail that negotiations were ongoing, but the city might revert to rehabbing the existing library instead. According to the e-mail, Fiore’s purchase of the existing library is a key to the mayor’s support of the development team’s proposal.

“The bottom line is there will be a central library project,” Cieslewicz’s spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said. “The mayor’s preference is to move forward as planned, but there are still a lot of details that need to be worked out.”

Kunkler said city leaders were intent on making the library a public works project in January and told the development team in February to either reduce the projected $23.9 million price to deliver the shell or sell the site to the city and let it proceed with a public works project.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think the city’s been working with us in good faith,” he said. “I think they pretty much allowed us to continue plans and then came back to us saying, ‘Oh, we’re not going to pay the price we agreed to.’

“(The development team) is disappointed,” Kunkler added. “This project we all teed up, and now we can’t go forward.”

But the West Washington Avenue proposal is not dead yet, said Tripp Widder, president of the city’s Library Board. He said Thursday’s meeting could mend some of the disagreements between the city and Fiore/Irgens and keep the project alive.

“From a land-use standpoint,” he said, “it’s clearly a better proposal.”

But rehabbing the existing library is a good alternative, Widder said. He said the city already interviewed architectural candidates for the West Washington Avenue site, so the city could still select an architect to plan a central library rehab.

“The qualifications are roughly the same,” Widder said. “Do you have high-rise experience, and do you have library experience?”

Steve Holzhauer, one of Eppstein Uhen’s principals, said his firm would be interested in rehabbing the library if the development team falls apart.

“It’d be a huge loss of opportunity for the city,” he said, “but we’d try to make the best of it.”

Alderman Mike Verveer, who represents the district with the central library, said he wants the city and Fiore/Irgens to find common ground.

“Going back to rehab would be a letdown to a lot of downtown stakeholders,” he said. “Would it be the end of the world? No, but we need to talk seriously about making the plan work instead of having a closure meeting.”

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