Ready, Set, Go!

Perhaps no one is more excited about or invested in the vision for the Capitol East District than the businesses, landowners and residents who are already there. For Brad Mullins, the desire to revitalize is as personal as it is business-minded.

“My family has been committed to and has had faith in the East Washington area for a long, long time,” says Mullins. “When I was growing up it was a vibrant area, but it slowly changed. Now, thanks to this tremendous commitment by the city and the neighborhoods, it’s coming back full force. We see it as a prime locale ready to pop.”

The Mullins family, led by Brad’s father Jerry, moved into the area in the early 1960s and in 1971 purchased their first East Washington area property—a multitenant office building at 1400 E. Wash, which they still maintain, known as Washington Square. Over the years they acquired and developed parcel after parcel, including the old Fyfe’s building and the Gisholt building, where the Metro Innovation Center is now located. Today, with just under twenty acres, the Mullins family is by far the majority landowner in Capitol East.

“It’s got so many things going for it now,” says Mullins. “Its proximity to the university, to the workforce, housing, family-oriented schools, eclectic shops, Willy Street, the Interstate, the State Capitol, the airport. This new-urbanism area with bus services, bike paths, parks, the Yahara river and now all this momentum with the city’s commitment to the area. Our feeling is it’s the premier growth sector of Madison. It’s where things are going to be happening.”

Mullins says Capitol East has large parcels prime for redevelopment, properties perfectly set for adaptive reuse and thousands of square feet of existing space with an old-school urban vibe but fully equipped for modern use. The city and neighborhood efforts to attract high-tech creative startups only bolster the Mullins family’s own commitment to the area, where there is room for everybody and sky-high potential.

“This area is certainly not limited to that high-tech startup type of user,” says Mullins, “but, hey, if it becomes the Silicon Valley of the Midwest, that would be really cool. And with the neighborhoods embracing the city’s studies and plans, the potential is definitely there.”

It’s this smooth collaboration between developers, landowners, neighborhood residents and city officials, so often problematic in other potential projects, that is driving the Capitol East District plan so strongly.

“I think it’s important when we think about the Capitol East District to develop a holistic plan,” says Gary Wolter, CEO of MG&E. “We need a plan that thinks about jobs, housing, retail, transportation, recreation, and a plan that thinks of all of those pieces simultaneously.”

MG&E was one of the first major employers on the east isthmus back in 1984, when they relocated corporate offices to Blount Street. In 2006 they announced their plan to discontinue burning coal at that location, a move Wolter says exemplifies MG&E’s commitment both to the downtown Madison, and to cleaner energy use.

“We are very supportive of the redevelopment,” says Wolter. “We have the infrastructure down here to accommodate that kind of growth, and our hope is that the redevelopment will incorporate the best of energy conservation and create a green community in the east isthmus area—not to mention a very large tax base, and a showcase strip that visually rivals the Capitol view on the approach down John Nolen drive. If done right, this will be huge for the community—but only if you think of it as a whole plan, not just individual pieces.”

Jim Bower’s point exactly.

“The quagmire here is that the market has not solved and will not solve these problems on its own,” says Bower, whose Bower Group is a lead consultant driving the project. “The city’s intervention is how you begin to strategically start tipping the scale towards the market solving it on its own. That’s where planning comes in, and the planning in the Capitol East District is now done. The neighborhood residents are totally on board, and demanding to know when we’re moving forward. With the city’s purchase of the Don Miller land, the hope is it’s the start of the market following suit to put this area back into play.”

As the city repositions the large chunk of Don Miller land into digestible parcels and resells them, as it demolishes, polishes and revitalizes the existing streets and infrastructure, business opportunities open up in ways previously impossible. The city’s investment is returned, new development grows the tax base even further, and as the neighborhood thrives, more entrepreneurs and residents are attracted to it. That’s the plan, though there is no real precedent for this kind of thing in Madison.

“This real estate repositioning work is not unusual for cities,” says Bower. “If you go to any major urban city, they’re doing this all over. I used to do this for the city of Chicago. But from a Madison perspective, it’s unusual.”

And, according to Bower and others, without a plan and without the collaboration necessary to execute it, the Capitol East District would continue to decelerate and all opportunity would be lost.

“We are taking this huge industrial corridor and transforming it into the next major employment center,” says Bower. “But ultimately we don’t want the city to have to invest in this way. You want the private sector to take over, working with the city to keep the momentum going. You’re essentially solving market failure until the marketplace is ready, willing and able to take over.

“We’re feeling our way to a tipping point.”

– Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz

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