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Planners for Madison public market seek more money to prep project

The Government East site in Madison is where the new underground parking lot would be built. (Image courtesy of Google Maps)

The Government East site in Madison is where developers are looking to put a public market. (Image courtesy of Google Maps)

By Paul Snyder

The private development team behind what would be a privately operated Madison public market is asking the city for $100,000 to plan the project.

The city already has given that Madison-based team — composed of Common Wealth Development Inc., Blue Planet Partners LLC and NorthStar Economics Inc. — $160,000 to study locations and viability for a public market.

“It feels like a sales job,” Alderman Michael Schumacher said. “Are we just giving money to keep Common Wealth in business?”

Representatives from Common Wealth and Blue Planet did not return calls for comment.

The city in 2006 approved $100,000 for Common Wealth and Blue Planet to study the possibility of building a market on a city- and state-owned parking lot on East Washington Street. In 2008, the city approved $60,000 for the team to examine other sites, including the Government East parking ramp, Union Corners and other sites on East Washington. That study pinpointed the Government East site.

Now, city planners and the development team want $100,000 for a detailed study of building a public market at the Government East site. Mark Olinger, director of Madison’s Department of Planning & Community & Economic Development, said the study will include preliminary architectural and engineering work and planning for who will manage, staff and operate the market.

But Schumacher said his skepticism is growing after years of city contributions to planning.

“I find this incremental approach tiring,” he said. “Pretty soon, we’re going to be at a point where we’ll say, ‘Well, you’ve already spent a quarter of a million, and we want to see what you have.'”

Olinger said there’s now more to consider for the Government East site than when Common Wealth first considered the property. The possibility of a high-speed rail stop across the street at Monona Terrace will add more pedestrian traffic to the area, he said, and Madison is preparing to build underground parking beneath the market site.

The market project is estimated to cost $10 million.

If the city builds the new parking lot, Olinger said, Madison would demolish a parking structure across the street, freeing up downtown property for more development. Planners need to know how new buildings in the area can work together, he said.

But planning is not the problem, Alderwoman Thuy Pham-Remmele said. It’s the city’s ties and payments to Common Wealth that warrant skepticism. She said the nonprofit developer has remained a part of the process only because some city leaders want a public market.

Common Wealth has not been the only company to receive city money for studies, Olinger said. Blue Planet played a role, and NorthStar Economics provided economic reports on a public market project.

The city never put out a request for proposals to develop a public market, Olinger said, and has kept a relationship with Common Wealth because it was the first developer to show interest in the project. Most private sector developers, he said, would not make a pitch for a public market.

“These things aren’t cash cows,” Olinger said. “I can’t think of one public market that hasn’t had city land involved. They’re largely done by nonprofits and largely with city collaboration.

“I’ve not had one developer ever say to me, ‘Man, I wish we could have done something on that public market project.'”

The city’s Transit and Parking Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved the $100,000 request, but the Common Council still needs to sign off on the deal.

Pham-Remmele said she’s tired of the city handing out money to market planners who cannot guarantee a payback.

“It’s just like the cat that comes back,” she said. “It’s annoying. It never dies, and I don’t think we need it.”

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