Way back in 2010, city officials had an idea: sell the parking lot behind the Madison Municipal Building, tear down the 50-year-old parking garage on East Wilson Street and build a big hotel connected to Monona Terrace (which might help reduce its annual multimillion-dollar deficits), along with an office building, apartments and lots of parking.
In 2011, newly-elected and (and returning to the role he'd held before) Mayor Paul Soglin wisely named the project "Judge Doyle Square," because no one in the city knew who Judge Doyle, thus limiting the controversy over naming a civic project for a dead white male.
As is often the case, the project then launched many, many studies, including two by urban planning consultants, two by hotel consultants, at least two by parking consultants, a consultant to manage the consultants and numerous staff to manage the latter consultant. This “planning phase” took four years and cost millions of dollars.
Over the next five years, the Judge Doyle Square project (known as JDS) went through a proposal for a super-luxury hotel requiring tens of millions in city funds, and then a downtown office building for Exact Sciences along with a big hotel.
The third proposal, now under consideration, has something new and something old. What’s new is the deepest, most expensive parking garage in the city with 560 spaces costing over $50 million. Also new is the proposed luxury apartment building that will include 50 “affordable” or below “market-rate” units for those unable to pay, say, $1,500 for a one-bedroom apartment.
What’s not new is the ever reappearing hotel — the magic bullet — to make Monona Terrace financially viable. Since opening 25 years ago, Monona Terrace has run a deficit of about $4 million per year — that’s a taxpayer bill of about $10,000 per day.
The main reason for the losses are that no event planner in their right mind would book a convention during our long winter running from October through April. Sure, there are local or statewide meetings, weddings, etc., but no national organization would book an event during winter and risk a blizzard as its members fly out.
Which brings us to the second problem, which is the high cost of flying through the Dane County Airport and the small number of non-stop flights available. The factors of high costs and inconvenience are extremely unpopular to people who live near hub airports.
Unable to propose a change in the weather or the cost of flying, consultants hired by Monona Terrace in 2009 and 2012 determined that the barrier to greater use in the winter months was the lack of an adjacent hotel. To remedy the problem, the first consultant recommended a 500-room hotel, while the second offered a more modest proposal of 450 rooms.
If the issue of a “room gap” was plausible in 2009 or 2012, it has now lost any basis in reality. Since 2009, the city has added about 2,000 hotel rooms — not counting the hundreds of Airbnb offerings that have sprung up. In the past two years, we’ve added 400 rooms downtown. In 2020-21, the downtown Madison Area Technical College building will be converted to a 315-room hotel, a new hotel on upper State Street will have 120 rooms and another at the Kohl Center will offer 170 rooms.
The city recognized that a big hotel for Monona Terrace was no longer needed, but like a bad habit, still required Beitler, the builder, to construct a hotel that would provide 205 rooms for the convention center.
It was as if the city no longer really believed that it was essential, but did it because it had always been done that way. The other signal indicating the lack of importance of a hotel is that the builder does not have to begin construction until 2021 and does not have to open until 2023.
For the last two years, the city has been the subject of Beitler's nearly nonstop stream of threats, lawsuits and “bizarre behavior” (in the words of the city’s attorney) that has been “bewildering” at best (in the words of the mayor).
Given this deeply dysfunctional relationship with its builder, can the city acknowledge that what was unnecessary 10 years ago is even less needed today? Can it admit that while it mulled over consultant reports for a decade, private operators solved the problem?
Why not seek proposals for this site (the parking ramp on East Wilson Street) without preconditions and see what may come forward? More housing? An office building? Or even another hotel?
David Ahrens is a former member of the Madison City Council.
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