Madison’s Common Council president is blasting a lawsuit challenging the city’s approval of the proposed Edgewater Hotel redevelopment.
“It’s a case that’s very unlikely to succeed, but even then, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was an appeal,” said Alderman Mark Clear. “We’re looking at something that could delay the project for two years.”
Fred Mohs and Gene Devitt, residents of Madison’s Mansion Hill Historic District, last month sued the city, arguing the Common Council defied the city’s landmarks ordinance by approving Brookfield-based Hammes Co.’s proposed $98 million redevelopment of the downtown hotel.
Hammes President Bob Dunn was unavailable for comment.
But Clear said he has talked to Dunn. As long as a lawsuit is challenging the project, Clear said, financing cannot be secured.
“No lender will touch him until this is no longer an issue,” Clear said. “It doesn’t matter whether the suit is meritorious or not. It has to be settled, dropped or concluded before the project can go forward.”
Mohs said Clear has not talked to him about his concerns, but the lawsuit is not intended to stall the project.
“I’d like to have the Landmarks Commission’s decision upheld,” Mohs said. “If appealing this to circuit court is a bad thing to do, then why is it legal? I’m sorry if he feels bad about it, but it’s something we’re allowed to do.”
The city’s Landmarks Commission in May denied a certificate of appropriateness to the project on the grounds that the project failed to meet many standards set in the city’s landmarks ordinance. The Common Council later managed a two-thirds majority to overturn the commission’s decision.
Clear said the council created the city’s landmarks ordinance and has the power to eliminate it, amend it or approve projects that do not meet its standards.
“It’s interesting to me that the very people that complained about how the council was not democratic during this whole debate are now using a patently undemocratic process to stop the project,” he said. “We’re the ones that make the decisions. We listened to our constituents, they said they wanted this project, and the vote happened.
“Nobody elected Fred (Mohs).”
But Alderman Mike Verveer, who voted against the project in May, said the lawsuit alone might not threaten financing and that a number of city decisions on the project need to be made.
In addition to final approval from the Madison Urban Design Commission, the project needs Common Council approval of the amended tax incremental financing district that will include the Edgewater. The Common Council also has to reauthorize the $8 million in TIF money set aside in the 2010 city budget.
“The TIF vote won’t happen until November and that wasn’t going to happen until November anyway,” Verveer said. “I don’t know that there are a lot of lenders out there that would put up money before knowing the developer had that commitment from the city secured.”
Verveer said he expects the residents’ legal challenge to be resolved by September, because the lawsuit only asks a Dane County Circuit Court judge to review the transcripts of the May council meeting and determine whether it appropriately approved the project.
“I’m not going to criticize my constituents for filing for that review,” he said. “The law gives them the right.”
Clear said he wants to make more people aware of the potential delays the lawsuit could cause and he wants Mohs to drop the suit.
Mohs said there are terms under which he would drop the suit, which he discussed with Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Mohs declined to identify the terms, and Cieslewicz was not available on Friday.
“If people don’t care about preserving history, we can decimate the ordinance we’ve been operating under for 35 years,” he said. “It’s not easy, and there are going to be challenges along the way.”
Steve Breitlow, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin, called Mohs’ challenge frustrating and said any delays to the project leave union workers on the bench.
Even though city reviews are not complete, Clear said, the lawsuit undermines the numerous hours logged on the project by city councils, committees and commissions.
“Right now,” he said, “the time we put in is just a waste.”