At a press conference last Thursday, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced that the county had selected developer Gorman & Company to build affordable housing for veterans' families in partnership with Dryhootch at the former Messner site on East Washington Avenue.
Absent from the event: the neighborhood's alder, county supervisor and a Madison city staff member who, according to an advisory county resolution, were slated to help choose the developer of the project. One of them didn’t learn about which developer had been selected until after the press announcement.
Had they been included, they could have better represented their constituents and provided their expertise, they said. Parisi's spokesman said the executive's office used its standard, experienced evaluation team, which generally doesn’t include elected officials.
“Not to have anybody from the city on the team ... it doesn't make for good collaboration going forward, and I think that’s an issue,” said Ald. Ledell Zellers, who represents the district that includes Messner.
The proposed development is a five-story apartment complex for veterans and their families. Named “Valor on Washington,” the project will provide affordable and market-rate units and on-site services.
Dane County originally purchased the property at 1326 E. Washington Ave. in 2015 to use as a homeless day resource center. That proposal fell through, and the day resource center moved on to become at The Beacon at the former Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce building at 615 E. Washington Ave. It opened earlier this fall.
After the Dane County Board approved a resolution to develop affordable housing at the site, the County issued a request for proposals and a county team reviewed the proposals that were submitted.
Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, who represents the area on the County Board, sponsored the resolution, which specifically recommended that the team include the neighborhood's alder, county supervisor and a city staff member from the Community Development division.
Wegleitner said she’s glad the project has “gotten to this stage,” but neither she nor the other recommended individuals were included on the team.
The county followed the same process for Messner that it always does, said Josh Wescott, chief of staff for the county executive’s office, in an email. He noted that the resolution was advisory, rather than a requirement.
Wescott said that to ensure an objective review and avoid “perception of political influence or favor” elected officials are “generally not part of that process."
“It’s worth noting the staff team tasked with reviewing this proposal is the same group that reviews and administers Dane County’s Affordable Housing Fund. Given their expertise and familiarity with public assistance housing projects, their participation offers consistency,” Wescott wrote.
Madison city staff were also not included for those reasons, he said. He added that the site was purchased entirely by the county.
Jim O’Keefe, director of the city’s Community Development Division, noted that the developer will likely ask for city funds for the project. It would have been helpful to take part in the team to better anticipate what kind of request his staff may get from the developer, he said. He asked that his division be part of the evaluation team, but was denied.
“I thought it would be useful to have a city perspective,” he said.
O'Keefe's division was not updated about the progress of the selection process, and hadn’t heard which developer was selected until a Cap Times reporter contacted him for this story.
Zellers said it would have been “really smart” to have someone from O’Keefe’s department on the evaluation team, and thinks the review process should have been in alignment with the county resolution.
Zellers said she would have checked with the city attorney to okay her involvement on the team. But she was “really surprised” that Wegleitner wasn’t included, she said, as Wegleitner was the “main mover” and the project is in her county board district.
“She was the person that pushed forward the concept of affordable housing on the Messner site,” Zellers said.
Zellers said she did appreciate that a Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association representative was included, though Wegleitner said the TLNA was only included after she pushed for it.
Zellers said a neighborhood steering committee will be formed around the project and the project still must go through the city approval process, which the neighborhood appreciates. But residents have “questions about how we got to this point,” she said.
Wegleitner agreed. She said that while it “sounds like there are definitely some positive aspects to the proposal,” she knows the selection was very competitive and thinks the issue “deserves a good discussion about whether the proposal is responsive to our community's needs.”
Wescott said that “there will certainly be many, many good opportunities in the months ahead for additional input from the community and city officials before the project receives final approval.”
The issue has been referred to the Personnel and Finance Committee and Board Chair Sharon Corrigan said she expects the board will vote on a resolution confirming Gorman & Company's proposal at its Feb. 1 meeting.