Report on the Redevelopment of MATC's Downtown Campus
Jonathan Bartnik
2017-08-20

by Jonathan Bartnik, DSA Member and chair of Homeless and Affordable Housing Working Group

The Meeting

On Tuesday, August 15, I attended the public comment meeting on the redevelopment of Madison Area Technical College (MATC)’s downtown campus at West Johnson St. and Wisconsin Ave. I arrived just before the meeting started, taking a rough census of the attendees. I counted 46 persons, all of whom were white: 11 women and 35 men; only seven appeared to be under 40. These numbers include myself, the alderpersons Ledell Zellers and Mike Verveer, and the presenters (all men).

I didn’t ask who were property owners and who were residents, but judging by appearances, comments, and behaviors, the body leaned heavily towards the former. Few people stated their names and affiliations before speaking. The silent young woman behind me was clearly a journalist — and Mike Verveer greeted her as such. A middle aged woman with a radiant smile identified herself as representing First United Methodist Church. An older gentleman with large hands and combed-back white hair in the front asked pointed questions with unclear motives…he occasionally seemed to be undermining the project in what might be called the public spirit even though his appearance suggested a villain from an ’80s children’s film. Another man a row behind me, lightly bearded in the classic urbane liberal way, interrogated the developers on street setbacks and the fate of the venerable ash trees along Wisconsin Ave. Though I disagreed with his — and the 80’s villain’s — obsession with preserving setbacks on Wisconsin and MLK avenues, I admired their persistence in questioning the presenters.

Most of the rest of the audience seemed to be from the property management industry, either as owners or employees. Verveer acknowledged as much at the beginning when he apologized for holding the hearing on move-in day (an inconvenience for the property-owning audience), and the representative from Hovde developers called on audience members by first name with collegial familiarity. One woman thus indicated proceeded to talk about her property which has both office space and hotel — presumably the Concourse across the street from the site in question.

I was slightly uncomfortable to be in such an explicitly capitalist meeting, even one as kindly capitalist as this one. It is in meetings like this where the owners and managers of our society decide the fate of our cities, and the people who live in them.

The Plan

The basic plan under discussion is this: Convert the existing MATC buildings into a hotel. Where the awkward split-level park-and-parking-lot currently sits on the northeastern edge of the property, dig down four floors for a 400+ car parking garage, build up two floors of retail space and seven more of office space.

The hotel development would be done by Drury Hotels, a privately held firm that runs 140 hotels across the country. Though they are in the top 100 hotel chains in the world, their spokesman indicated that their 21,000 rooms pales in comparison to leader Marriott’s 2 million. Drury has long specialized in urban renewal hoteliering, reclaiming industrial beauties from ignominious fates — in one case buying a building as it was being torn down in order to renovate into a hotel.

Now, this is an honorable business. In Detroit, my hometown, any fate besides implosion is a glad one for the art deco denizens of downtown. And the refurbishment of the Cadillac Hotel (not to my knowledge by Drury) is popularly credited with helping bring some life back into downtown. The Detroit example is apt, as most of the previous renovation projects Drury cited were in other rust belt cities: Cleveland, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, post-Katrina New Orleans. I applaud, loudly and enthusiastically, the efforts of a private firm (I think it can only be a private firm who would risk such a quixotic venture) to preserve these buildings and contribute to the rejuvenation of urban life across the United States. I really do. But Madison is not one of these cities. Madison is vibrant and growing. There are already four upscale hotels within a five minutes’ walk (Edgewater, Concourse, Best Western/Park on the Square, Marriott-Madison Downtown). Over decades and centuries, Madison may ebb and flow as a city, but she will never recede like Detroit or Cleveland, because she has the state government, the county government, and the University. So long as these are here, we will always have a thriving urban life, which makes the rust belt hotel renovation ill-fitting and unimaginative.

The office development would be done by Hovde Development, whose spokesman pointed out recent triumphs Ovation (309 W. Johnson Street) and the renovation of 316 West Washington (home to Sushi Red, among others). These are both excellent developments. Ovation has ground-level retail, and if I recall correctly, even boasts heated sidewalks for the hundred or so square feet flanking the residential entrance — a luxury I appreciate on my daily winter commutes down Johnson. 316 West Washington tied a mostly vacant brutalist atrocity back to the city: the stories-tall waterfall mural adds an element of playfulness to the austere façade; the retail space for Sushi Red and The Barre Code bring it down to the human scale.

Hovde’s part of the plan, which you can find detailed officially here, is broadly to wedge a 9-story glass tower between the existing MATC building and Wisconsin Ave, leaving a 30-foot setback from the boulevard. The Wisconsin-facing façade would be modern a la Ovation and other recent developments; the MATC-facing side would honor the 1920’s architecture of the older building; the Johnson and Dayton sides would transition from the old to the new. On Johnson, the upper stories begin to recede, bowing to the far-shorter neighbor across the street, Bethel Lutheran Church. The first floor (and possibly the second — it was not clear to me) provides retail space split in two chunks, either side flanking the residential entrance which would preserve the ancient Central High School stone arch. Theoretically one of the retail spaces would house a much coveted grocery store (I might actually start cooking again — the 15 minute walk to Capital Center is in all candor too far for me), the other is up for grabs but one developer suggested that anything but bars are a long shot.

Below of course is the parking garage, the first floor of which (at grade) would also include loading docks for both businesses. This first floor is covered: Its roof serves as the ground for a second-story garden terrace that connects the two buildings while granting sunlight to the inner row of hotel rooms in the hotel.

On its own merits, the entire project (renovated hotel and new office building) is hard to object to. I am all for urban development. I would personally benefit from a grocery store on that block, and I think it is important for the city to continue developing centers of activity between State and Willy streets, so a bar on Wisconsin is not unwelcome. Both halves of this project contribute to a thriving new city downtown — retail, hotel, and office space — that leverage the market-rate housing that has been erected by Hovde and others all across the Isthmus. The only problem is that this thriving new city is pricing myself and others out of downtown — and removing cultural locales that cater explicitly to this middle- and low-income section of society.

The Isthmus Working Class

MATC is vacating its downtown campus. The reason as I understand it is purely about access: MATC’s studentry is not located in the downtown area, and getting from the flanks of town to the center is time-consuming, and under rush-hour isthmus conditions, frankly dangerous. Instead, MATC has chosen to bulk up its Truax campus on the East Side.

This decision makes sense given the conditions — so let’s unpack those conditions a bit. Residential property values increased fully 6.6% on the isthmus last year; commercial properties went up by 16.6% (link). My rent went up 2.5% this summer while my income remained the same; meanwhile, my student debt continues to grow at a tidy 6.8% annually. Upscale to luxury apartment buildings have been opening in force the past three years, including Ovation on Johnson as well as neighbors The Lux and Domain, Park Place at Bassett and Dayton, and a spate of new buildings centered around South Bedford and Main Street and stretching to Findorff’s headquarters at S. Bedford and North Shore (Findorff will be the general contractor for Hovde’s portion of the development). As the Hovde spokesman said in justifying their decision to focus on office and retail space, “upon project completion,” the Isthmus will have reached the saturation point for market-rate housing.

As newer, shinier buildings with penthouse clubrooms (Ovation’s was highlighted during an introduction of Hovde) go up, wealthier residents move onto the Isthmus and push poorer residents out. White-collar workers like myself, with a stable University job, and UW students partly cushioned by debt and dreams of future better days, can remain on the Isthmus by accepting higher rents, more roommates, or shoddier living conditions. More precariously employed individuals can’t. Nor, I expect, can the working-class students of MATC, who are more often than not working their way through college. For them, $600 for a 275 square foot bare-bones apartment (the cheapest such on the market) is prohibitive; $1100 for a double hardly less so. For comparison, studios and one bedrooms at The Lux start at $1250, at Tobacco Lofts near S. Bedford at $1335, at Ovation 309 at $1455.

The process we are witnessing is a straightforward case of gentrification*: A city “renewing” itself not by improving the lives and surroundings of existing residents, but by pushing those residents to the fringes as wealthy people move in. Gentrification is the inevitable result of treating property — particularly housing — as a commodity. The best way to extract incomes out of real estate property is to market to those who can pay. Which is why the decision by MATC to welcome Hovde, Drury, and company is so startling.

MATC, as a school, and especially as a place of higher education (and therefore dedicated to self-actualization more than regimentation) is a place of cultural production. Inquisitive minds gather, learn, and create. In the past five years, that cultural production has steadily slowed due to the pivot to the East, but I always found it reassuring to walk down Dayton and see the projects in the windows, or know that, for a nominal fee, I could have the cosmetologist students train their skills on my hair. And beyond this aspect, it brought a spate of diversity, both in terms of color and income, to an increasingly (more) white, increasingly affluent neighborhood.

I am profoundly disappointed that MATC chose to infill this culturally productive and diversifying location with a homogenizing force. To be clear: I am not inherently against office buildings or hotels — not yet at any rate — but sacrificing semi-public cultural space for these things ensures that downtown Madison will become less affordable and less welcoming to the very population that MATC historically welcomed.

One of the proposals that MATC turned down would have renovated the existing structure into non-profit art spaces and affordable housing; another included affordable housing alongside the hotel and retail space (link).

But the decision was financial: MATC keeps title to the property, and the developer will pay rent to MATC. By fiscal logic, MATC must maximize its returns to fund its educational mission. So it bypassed affordable options who couldn’t hope to compete with a completely profit-oriented development proposal.

I bear no specific ill will toward Hovde or Drury. I love them for loving cities: Urban redevelopment and infill is economically and environmentally superior to sprawl, and under most circumstances it also benefits residents’ physical health — by obviating car culture — and mental health — by reinforcing community. I love them for being good capitalists, who value their communities and employees, and who are proud of their tradition of customer service. And the highest ideal of customer service is not merely “the customer is always right,” but “only the best for my customers.” Good capitalists make and deliver on that promise — for their customers. Good capitalism builds community — for those who can afford it.

To the rest it donates the scraps, then exclaims its virtue for doing so.

Jonathan Bartnik is a Madison DSA member. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of Madison DSA as a whole.