Madisonians aren’t known for holding their tongues on the major issues of the day, but they’ve been quiet during more than two years of planning for Judge Doyle Square.
Maybe too quiet, given that there would be $150 million to $200 million worth of new development and up to $80 million in city investment involved in redeveloping the two Downtown blocks now home to the Madison Municipal Building and the Government East parking garage.
Things could get loud in the coming weeks, though, with the first city meeting on selecting a developer.
Or at least that’s what Ald. David Ahrens is hoping.
“I think it will get a lot more attention,” Ahrens said, pointing out that the subsidy for the project could be five times what was requested during the fight two years ago over the controversial Edgewater hotel redevelopment.
Ahrens has played the fly in the Judge Doyle Square ointment by questioning the primary rationale for the project — i.e., the need for more hotel rooms to serve Monona Terrace and thus boost the facility’s ability to attract more events.
He says there are already some 600 more hotel rooms being built at the Edgewater and elsewhere in the wider central city area, and Monona Terrace’s economic impact isn’t big enough to justify such a huge city subsidy for more hotel construction.
Last week, he sponsored a presentation by University of Texas-San Antonio professor and convention industry expert Heywood Sanders, who takes a dim view of projections provided by companies that do consulting work for cities on conventions and hotel space.
Madison has commissioned three such studies, at a cost of about $81,000, since 2008, according to Monona Terrace executive director Gregg McManners.
By contrast, Ald. Mike Verveer, whose district includes Judge Doyle Square, said he’s seen plenty of data to suggest that in order for more hotel rooms to be effective, they have to be as close to the convention center as the Square is to Monona Terrace.
And McManners called Sanders a “hired gun” who “cherry-picks information” to support his assertions.
Ahrens said it’s the city who’s hired the guns — specifically, the consultants who tell city officials Monona Terrace needs more hotel rooms.
“They’re trying to deflect the real issue,” he said.
No doubt major government-backed projects can attain a kind of self-perpetuating momentum. It’s hard to justify all the staff time and consultants’ fees if they ultimately lead to nothing.
On the other hand, if the city is hell-bent on spending millions to remake two city blocks, despite any clear evidence that it needs to, what, exactly, would its motivation be?
The “edifice complex,” Ahrens speculated, or the tendency among leaders to “feel your importance in the magnitude of the edifice.”
I’m not so sure about that, although Ahrens and McManners certainly don’t seem emotionally neutral on the project.
And we haven’t even heard yet from Madison’s citizenry — which is anything but neutral.
Judge Doyle Square could end up making the Edgewater debate look like a quiet, sunny summer afternoon on the Terrace.