Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Waterfront Development Fun!

I'm happy that there's discussion and even a little movement on the downtown/waterfront development projects. Where that goes is all fine and well, but I would like to bring up a piece of the development puzzle that I have heard very little about, namely, what to do with City Center/the Park Plaza Mall.

For an astonishingly comprehensive history of CC, go here. As most people know, CC is now an office building that is apparently filled to about 80% capacity -- rather impressive given the circumstances. Apparently the structure has several amenities that the tenants find very suitable to their needs, like ample covered parking.

That being said, it's time the city razed the damn thing to the ground.

I'm told by someone with knowledge of these kinds of things -- but have yet to find a link to verify this -- that the old Park Plaza Mall cost about $30 million to build, in 1969 dollars, and that it is now worth less than $5 million in 2007 dollars. Again, please take this with a grain of salt, but I'm going to proceed as if these figures are, in fact, true. If the value of Park Plaza had never diminished it would be today worth $168 million just to account for inflation.

Obviously, if the mall would have succeeded, it would be worth much more. Unfortunately, it didn't and it is now worth a fraction of its start-up value. I think it's also important to remember that the mall was originally intended to be just one part of what was then a "riverfront development" project of sorts that included the Hotel and Convention Center. All three were intended to work in concert, but never really got the chance to do so because the Fox River Mall in Appleton opened shortly thereafter. It's probably a good idea to learn from that lesson.

Anyway, here are some of the reasons I think City Center is uglier than a pimple on prom night and needs to go, ASAP:

1.) Aesthetics. Let's face it: no one is going to confuse CC with a Frank Gehry building any time soon. It's hideous. It's worst than atrocious . It's offensive to my eyes. Every time I look at it my sense of order and harmony of the universe is called into question. The building's design actually blocks most of the river front from surrounding lines of sight, rather than highlighting it. The parking ramps look almost like the architect wanted them to be the building's facade. Waterfront access between the hotel and the Jackson Street bridge is essentially cut off ... Basically, CC is built like a fortress to keep shoppers inside the building using the same tricks that a casino would with very few windows (a frequent complaint of renters). Which leads us to ...

2.) Utility. I'm glad that CC was able to reinvent itself as an office building, but it just might be the most inefficient office building ever. First of all, think of what it takes to heat that sucker ... the building itself is cavernous with an useless atrium and wide hallways that must be a pain to keep climate controlled in the winter. It was not designed for office purposes (again with the windows), which likely means that the kind of renters it attracts are bare bones outfits (like Eastbay) that don't invest much into improving their spaces. Those huge hallways also can't be used as office space, and since there really isn't a whole lot of foot traffic going through them these days it is little more than a drain of resources. I haven't the foggiest what is need just to maintain CC's infrastructure (e.g. pot-holes in the parking ramps, etc.), but it's probably too much to be worth the trouble.

3.) Community Integration. There isn't a lick of it, or Again with the fortress thing. With the exception of the Shoppes at City Center (Paper Tiger, Planet Perk, Blimpy, Dinkle's et al. -- the little niche on the corner of Pearl and Market Streets), it's nearly impossible to see people go in and out of the building. One sees a lot of cars driving in and out of the parking ramp, but rarely any people. This design retards human movement from CC to downtown, which should be encouraged. People should want to walk to a bar on Main Street (or whatever) after work for a drink and walk back to their car without it being a production. Likewise people working/ shopping/hanging out on Main Street should want -- and feel welcome to -- walk on over to the river to enjoy the view (or whatever).

These are just three of the most basic facets of urban planning and CC fails all of them spectacularly.

So, what should we do about it? Here's a solution:

The city should should buy City Center from the current owners at a reasonable market price, make arrangements to relocate the current tenants (unless their leases are due to expire), then sell the land "to the highest bidder" for $1. By this I mean, the city essentially gives the property away to the developer who pitches the best plan for redeveloping City Center at his own expense (hopefully including the price of demolition -- though I'd happily volunteer to do the job myself, pro bono, on general principle).

There's no reason to believe that a new use for the CC property can not enhance its value many times over thus providing the city with more tax revenue than it currently sees from the office mall. Over time the city should be able to recoup the initial investment it undertook to purchase CC from the current owners from the sale of the property itself, but if this is done correctly there will be a residual effect is the surrounding area that could also potentially increase the city's tax base by increasing the values of the neighboring properties and hopefully generating additional commerce.

City Center is a tremendous impediment to progress downtown. It's a relic of a bygone optimism than never panned out and does little, if anything, for the city now. Right now it generates revenue for its owners and some for the city as well, but there is absolutely no incentive for anyone to make any capital improvements to the facility whatsoever, which means CC is not coming anywhere near its potential, and that damages the larger idea of comprehensive downtown/riverfront transformation.

Now, being something of realist, I understand that the chances that the city would take such an aggressive step are slim. The money we're talking about dealing with here would certainly be much higher than the $2.2 million TIF for the 100 N. Main project, which I hope does not evolve into a kind of de facto Point of No Return for future city-involved development standards.

100 N. Main is still salvageable, City Center is not. I realize that I'm getting a little ahead of myself here and that there is quite a bit to do with the old Pioneer Inn property and even the Marion/Pearl district, but by entertaining the possibility of getting rid of CC the city might be opening itself up to previous unconsidered development opportunities . Consider this, then, a starting point for a broader conversation about saying adieu to the old Park Plaza Mall, which for too long has been the proverbial elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge.

No comments: