By Neil Heinen
The January 2011 Madison Magazine included a sixteen-page insert promoting the Capitol East District, 240 acres of land running along both sides of East Washington Avenue from roughly Blair Street to the Yahara River. It laid out a vision for what then-mayor Dave Cieslewicz called potentially "the biggest economic development engine for the city since the University Research Park."
That vision included new housing, a new park, shops, restaurants and nightlife, a renovated Breese Stevens field, an integrated, twenty-first-century transit system and, most important, jobs—hundreds of new jobs. There was land available and shovel-ready, unprecedented buy-in from neighbors and city officials, and a plan.
That was two years ago. A drive down East Washington the second week of January this year, with one exception, looked nearly identical to a similar drive in 2011. Now, that exception is significant. Gebhardt Development is putting up a $39 million, twelve-story, mixed-use building with 30,000 square feet of commercial space and 215 apartments. It’s a big project. But still, that’s just one crane in a part of the city that some of us thought would be sporting a half dozen or more by this time. To be fair, there’s been some detail and preparation work in the district. And there have been a couple of false starts. But we’ve been talking about this thing for ten years now and we’ve had a plan for two years and we’ve got one project to show for it. I don’t get it.
Look, I know the recession is not over. And I know this is a priority for city planners. But even if a new project for the 800 block of East Washington is approved within the next couple of months, and that project is the catalyst for another development, then another development, we’re still sitting here two years out with one new mixed-use building. Grand Rapids, Michigan, is developing at a faster rate than we are! Other cities are, too. And just to be clear here, we’re talking about potentially the single biggest urban development in Madison in our lifetimes. The Capitol East District can and should change the way we look at Madison. It can and should be a dynamic, exciting, vibrant new neighborhood where businesses want to grow and families want to live and folks want to congregate. And it feels like we’re sitting on our hands.
One problem may be competing visions of the kind of development the district needs. There’s a vision for green energy and sustainability companies. There’s a vision for incubators and research companies. There’s a vision for urban agriculture and food-related businesses. There’s a vision for the balance of housing and jobs. Exactly! Yes! It’s not a competition.
The Capitol East District can and should be all of those and more. Stop looking for the one, perfect vision and get working on one that welcomes all comers. Focus. That’s the way one business leader described the problem to me recently. We in Madison are big on ideas and not so big on focus. We should be promoting the Capitol East District from here to Freiburg, Germany. There should be pamphlets and billboards and television ads. Let’s stop worrying about whether bioscience start-ups need to be within walking distance of the UW campus and start creating the environment of common space, great coffee shops, electric car sharing and fresh food markets that will in fact make them realize they couldn’t possibly see themselves anywhere else. The potential growth in tax revenue alone should make this project the top priority for every level of city government.
Some folks clearly are having a hard time envisioning what the Capitol East District can be. I can no longer drive down the street and not envision what it can be. And I’m increasingly frustrated that it is not.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.
Find more of his columns here.