Downtown is becoming a boomtown, with Madison politics in full play

7 things we *think* we know about Madison in 2015
Downtown is becoming a boomtown, with Madison politics in full play
Vision of the Future: A rendering of StartingBlock, which will be built on East Washington Avenue. 

No. 4: Wander through downtown Madison on any day of the week at practically any time of the day, and the vibe of urban life feels electric. Like something’s happening here. But what it is–to finish Stephen Stills’ lyrics–ain’t exactly clear.

As apartment buildings and amenities for well-heeled young professionals and the Boomer set seem to multiply by the minute, homeless people are banned from the City-County Building premises after a months-long battle over their continuous presence there.

Justifiably so, the home-lessness debate–led by Mayor Paul Soglin–became a question of whether building occupants and visitors should be subjected to the deviant behavior and illegal activity some of the individuals were engaging in on public property. Still, we Madisonians want what’s best for everybody, and when we don’t get it, well, it stinks.

That sort of yin and yang of life in Mad City was on city alder Shiva Bidar’s mind as she talked about both the hope and trepidation she and many of her Madison Common Council colleagues felt while deliberating and ultimately approving the Judge Doyle Square project in a vote of twelve to six.

Developers promised it would bring hundreds more jobs and a more diverse workforce into the urban core–and bolster Madison’s reputation as a high-tech and biotech hotspot bigtime. That was before anchor tenant Exact Sciences, the company that created an innovative, non-invasive colorectal cancer test, surprised everybody in early November by opting out and instead expanding its current footprint at University Research Park.

“It’s a huge, long-term investment,” Bidar said in the days after the vote was taken. “We could be standing there ten years from now going, ‘This is the best thing we could’ve done,’ or, ‘It didn’t turn out the way we wanted.'”

Ten years turned into all of about ten minutes.

On the topic of the homeless, Bidar was not in favor of their eviction from the City-County building grounds. But, she is feeling hopeful at least about the new Briarpatch temporary shelter for youths that just opened on Rimrock Road, the sixty studio apartments for homeless adults going up near East Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street and the future county day shelter nearby.

Meanwhile, hopes seem nothing but high for the latest in a string of economic developments slated to revitalize East Washington Avenue. Another epic residential and commercial project, the Galaxie, has emerged on the skyline next to its stellar sister the Constellation.

And the much-anticipated StartingBlock will be located on the south side of the 800 block of East Wash, soon to be filled with hackerspace Sector67 and emerging IT companies and services. Destined to be a magnet for entrepreneurship, startups and established businesses across all sectors of the economy, the nonprofit should be a veritable melting pot of ideas and innovation, programs and resources and networks and collaborations both virtual and brick and mortar.

“It’s a crucial component of Madison’s future,” says Pam Christenson, economic development director for Madison Gas and Electric and a founding StartingBlock board member. Other business bigwigs agree–American Family Insurance partnered with Gebhardt Development to construct the building that will house StartingBlock, and it’s a hot topic at the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, in boardrooms and at networking happy hours. At press time, StartingBlock had reached about ninety percent of its fundraising goal. To close the gap and open its doors by late 2016, there’s a crowdfunding effort through Kickstarter selling “virtual blocks” of the future floorplan starting at twenty-five bucks a pop.

Despite this and other hiccups, Bidar says, “2015 has been a pivotal year,” recounting everything from StartingBlock to the shooting death of Tony Robinson and the protests that followed to the rollercoaster politics of Judge Doyle Square and homelessness. Even French fries were, quite literally, on the table for discussion as the city council overrode the mayor’s veto of a beer license for a new State Street venture, Mad City Frites.

“Only in Madison would you have two council meetings on whether frites and beer go together,” says Bidar.

Whatever it is that’s happening here, this seems clear: 2015 has been a year to remember in downtown Madison.

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