Madison Common Council approves Judge Doyle Square project
Madison’s Common Council approved the final negotiated version of the Judge Doyle Square project early Wednesday morning after a nine hour hearing.
The move allows the city to enter into a final development agreement that could have biotech company Exact Sciences breaking ground on a new downtown headquarters by December. The company has grown rapidly in recent years after creating an at-home colon cancer test.
If that final agreement is approved, it would grant the largest subsidy in city history, more than $46 million in public dollars, to help Exact Sciences move downtown. $20.8 million would be used to build private parking.
If other public money for a replacement Government East parking garage is added to the JDS cost, more than $67 million in public dollars will be used to complete the estimated $200.7 million project.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin had pushed hard for the project, saying the extraordinary opportunity outweighed any financial risk. Soglin argued to the council the overall future of downtown Madison development hinged on making exceptions to the city’s usual financial practices.
“At some point we have to weigh it against vision for the city,” Soglin said. “I don’t see how we do anything but approve this enthusiastically.”
Many alders who said they were undecided at the beginning of the meeting were persuaded the overall benefits of the project outweighed the risk.
“What is the future if we say no to Judge Doyle Square,” Downtown Alder Michael Verveer asked before voting yes, as he remembered when Alliant Energy took 800 jobs away from downtown.
Ald. Mark Clear cited the ‘unique and amazing’ opportunity Exact Sciences represented. The large, growing employer wanting to move downtown at a time when Clear said the city had the land and money available.
Ald. Matthew Phair said the Exact Sciences development symbolized the type of growth that could potentially keep his young children from moving away from Madison some day.
Much of the debate also focused on Madison’s racial disparity. Alders Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and Barbara Harrington-McKinney said while they had been thinking about voting no, numerous calls from enthusiastic minority community members pushed them toward supporting the project.
“The potential of opening up doors to minorities, weighs heavily on me,” McKinney said.
Council President Denise DeMarb echoed liking the project’s diversity potential.
“We all know downtown is too white,” DeMarb said. “This is a lot of money and there’s risk involved. And I guess I’m OK with that.”
However Ald. Samba Baldeh said he did not see diversity in this project, saying Exact Sciences already had strong diversity hiring practices no matter where it was located.
“Why are we giving $46 million to a public corporation,” Baldeh asked as he wondered if the money could be better spent on dealing with the city’s racial disparity, affordable housing and minorities in jail.
A smaller hotel and expensive new parking ramp also weighed heavily on members voting no.
“We may not have a hotel for 11 years,” Ald. Rebecca Kemble said. “Today I’m voting no. This is really bad idea for the city.”
“This parking structure seems substandard,” Ald. Marsha Rummel said. “If you did it without this project it would be a different structure.”
The mayor’s most outspoken critic, Ald. David Ahrens, said the project was inconsistent with city tax laws and what was typically considered a public project. What was most striking, Ahrens said, was the risk council members were burdening taxpayers with.
“$36 million in city money may not be recoverable,” Ahrens said. “If there’s a loss it will be immense.”
Alders who voted no also had concerns about the congestion the massive project would create. They mayor and numerous other council members said they would rather deal with congestion over an empty downtown.
Much of the early part of the evening was spent hearing from the negotiating team, who said if the company did not have 300 employees working in the Downtown office by the time it opened in the summer of 2017, they would face a $30,000 penalty for every position not filled. The company projects adding more employees over time.
by the December closing, 26 conditions must be met, or the project may still not eventually be built.
Exact Sciences CEO and President Kevin Conroy told the council if the downtown project was voted down, the company would not rule out expanding its’ University Research Park location or relocating to Fitchburg.
The proposed Judge Doyle Square project would be built in phases. In addition to 250,000 square feet of Exact Sciences office space, the plan includes 600 public and 650 private parking spaces. A 216-room hotel, retail and bicycle centers, and more than 100,000 square feet of additional office space could be built at a later time.
The motion passed 12 to 6. Alder Zellers and Cheeks were absent, with Cheeks recusing himself because of a conflict of interest. Alders Schmidt, Palm, Ahrens, Baldeh, Kimball, Rummel voted against the plan.