Property assessors notice things that I don’t. I’m not surprised. However, in an interview with Ald. Mike Verveer, I was surprised to learn that apparently every property owner in the area, including businesses and residents, have a higher level of aesthetic appreciation than me.
Take benches, for instance. According to Verveer, replacing some of the old benches on the Capitol Square is a development priority worthy of Tax Incremental Financing (TIF). He explained that some of the current benches, which have recently been adorned with controversial “dividers,” harken back to the 1970’s and 80’s, when Madison underwent a series of city planning developments centered on the exclusion of vehicular traffic from State St and the creation of Library Mall, both of which were given “brick designs.” The problem, according to Verveer, is that the architect was an out-of-stater who failed to appreciate the threat posed by the Wisconsin winter – and much of the brick, including the brick bus shelters, has since been removed. Moreover, the wood seating on the benches is old and prone to splinters. In sum, they’re ugly and unpleasant to sit on.
However, benches are only a smidgen of Verveer’s development ambitions for the area. He wants to redo the sidewalks, which he currently finds embarrassingly uncoordinated, plant more trees and redo much of the grass on the sidewalks, as well as renovations to the Children’s Museum. He projects his plan will cost a maximum of $1.8 million, and he is cautiously optimistic about its chances of approval next week.
Verveer plans to use TIF funding for the whole project. Anybody who has paid attention to development politics in Madison has noticed that the use of TIF has expanded far beyond its original intent, which was to prop up “blighted” areas through investments that would raise property values and therefore pay for themselves by increasing property tax revenue. In Madison there are currently three TIF districts that roughly coincide with the following areas: State St, South side of the Square and the North side of the Square. The Square itself does not fall into any of the districts, however, because of a state law passed several years ago, TIF can be used to finance projects within a half mile radius of an approved district. Hence, each part of the square qualifies.
Using TIF allows the city to spend without incurring general obligation debt, as most projects in the capital budget require. As stated before, community members have voiced confidence in the effect Capitol renovations could have on property values.
As mentioned in a recent Isthmus article on the subject, Verveer’s new benches would have no dividers, which makes them likely to win the support of advocates for the homeless, such as Ald. Marsha Rummel, who has been a vocal critic of development efforts that attempt to discourage transient populations from certain areas, such as the renovation of Peace Park, which is already a popular hang out for panhandlers. The Peace Park plan would include the installation of an ATM, which, because of a city ordinance, would make panhandling within a certain distance illegal.