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Saturday, April 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Fair
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Edgewater Hotel plan secret, suspicious
Expansion backed by largely clandestine lobbying effort

A Hammes Co. rendering of the project: A $107 million upgrade on a $5.3 million building.
A Hammes Co. rendering of the project: A $107 million upgrade on a $5.3 million building.
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The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation is gravely concerned about a proposed $107 million expansion of the Edgewater Hotel. And not just about preservation.

"The whole process is so private that plans for the Edgewater will be so fully realized, so fully formed when they're finally revealed, that there will be no opportunity for public input," says Michael Bridgeman, a board member and spokesman for the Trust.

There may be reasons that the project developer, Hammes Company of Brookfield, is being secretive. It's engaged in what appears to be unreported lobbying. It's created a lobby group to back the project and what seems to be a dummy-front neighborhood organization. It's built questionable alliances with the mayor and Downtown Madison Inc.

"The process needs to be public," says Bridgeman, communications director for Wisconsin Public Television. "Not good. Not healthy. Not how it's done."

According to Dist. 2 Ald. Bridget Maniaci, in whose district the project lies, the Edgewater Hotel will expand onto adjacent property owned by National Guardian Life Insurance Co. The developer reportedly will request TIF dollars.

The Edgewater, 666 Wisconsin Ave., is in Mansion Hill, one of five districts with Capitol Neighborhoods Inc., a neighborhood group. The hotel, assessed at $5.3 million, sits in city and national historic districts, and in multiple zoning districts. There's a five-story, 50-foot height restriction within the area. Other regulations govern lakeshore development.

Historic districts' views are protected - more so here than elsewhere in Madison. In 1965 the city vacated part of the street for hotel expansion, and an ordinance was created protecting "the visual outlook from the vicinity of the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Langdon Street."

In the long term, the city's downtown plan has identified National Guardian's green space as a potential park. Mansion Hill recently filed a draft of its own neighborhood development plan with the city, after seven years of work.

Representatives of Mansion Hill have thus far had six meetings with Hammes. Their steering committee includes attorney and landlord Fred Mohs and Ledell Zellers, director of human resources for the State of Wisconsin Investment Board.

Hammes is a healthcare facility developer. Bob Dunn is president of its Madison division, Hammes Company Sports and Entertainment. Dunn is among the nation's most influential sports facility developers, according to Sports Business Daily. Projects include Lambeau Field, the Kohl Center, Ford Field in Detroit and the Edgewater.

Hammes has promised to reveal plans since January, but the neighbors have seen little. "It's all image. No plan," says Mohs. Dunn and Edgewater staff declined comment.

Last week, Dunn said he was looking for a media outlet to release information to, as part of an ongoing partnership. He offered this reporter, who lives in Mansion Hill, special and perhaps future writing opportunities, but no actual information. A story on the project then ran in Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal.

According to that report, the project will include an 11-story tower, a "grand staircase to the lake," and a public plaza overlooking Lake Mendota. It would include 230 hotel rooms, 364 parking spaces, restaurants and meeting space.

In the last several months, Hammes has greased the skids by meeting with people who make decisions. This includes at least 10 meetings since Nov. 14 with Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, city sources affirm.

In contrast, Brad Murphy of Planning and Development says Hammes has met with staff just "several times."

Zellers suspects a behind-the-scenes deal is being cut. As president of Capital Neighborhoods for three years, she's worked with developers on projects including the expansion of First United Methodist Church. "If every developer met with the mayor as often," she says, "our mayor would have no time to do anything."

Maniaci, meanwhile, says she's had at least one meeting a week on the project, either with Hammes or the Mansion Hill group. (Zellers says Mansion Hill has met with Maniaci three times.) Someone has been doing a lot of lobbying.

And this $107 million project in a historic district is proceeding at a time when the city has no preservation planner. Mayor Cieslewicz has frozen the vacancy.

Hammes Co. has even created a new lobbying interest at city hall. The group, which goes by the name Landmark X, has six registered agents, a massive number for Madison, and its leader is Bob Dunn. The rest are two Hammes staffers, two Boston architects and Henry Gempeler of the law firm Foley & Lardner.

And while Landmark X's stated business activity is "Edgewater Hotel redevelopment," the name "Hammes" appears only on the email addresses of Dunn and others. It would be possible to review the form and not even notice the connection.

The Madison city clerk received Landmark X's lobby registration forms on Feb. 6. But Hammes has been lobbying even longer.

"They were lobbying me last November and December," says Brenda Konkel, Maniaci's predecessor as alder. Neither Hammes nor Landmark X has filed contact or spending reports for 2008, as the city's lobby law would seem to require.

Edgewater project proponents have also helped create the Mansion Hill Neighborhood Coalition. It's a rival to Capitol Neighborhood's Mansion Hill, and it includes "institutions and civic organizations that have property interests in the Mansion Hill Historic District," according to a May 27 letter to the city.

Not surprisingly, the Coalition favors mixed use in the historic district and relaxing ordinances. Before even broad outlines of the Edgewater project were public, the Coalition was circulating a petition supporting it.

The Coalition was created at an Edgewater meeting March 26. Cieslewicz was there; it appears on the mayor's calendar as a meeting with Dunn. To create the Coalition, National Guardian Life retained Landmark X's firm, Foley & Lardner. The specific attorney tapped is Allen Arntsen, who just happens to be the chair of the executive committee of Downtown Madison Inc., which is backing the expansion. (Arntsen did not respond to requests for comment.)

Amy Supple of Hammes signed the May 27 letter from the Coalition strongly criticizing the traditional Mansion Hill neighborhood development plan. That plan is now stalled.

"I had a meeting with downtown Ald. Mike Verveer last night regarding the Edgewater Hotel," Supple wrote to seven Coalition members in a June 20 email. "He told me that he has convinced the neighborhood to set aside the plan until the Edgewater is through the entitlements process." Mansion Hill and Verveer confirm this.

"I think stopping the plan is a great win for the Coalition," Supple wrote. "I would suggest that we keep this momentum going and get the city to memorialize what they said they would do, which includes a) putting the [Mansion Hill] plan discussions on hold and, b) creating a fair and balanced subcommittee to review and change the plan once it starts up again."

What the city "said they would do"?

Is this Hammes lobbying or the Coalition? Will these exertions appear on Landmark X lobbying reports? And exactly how "fair and balanced" are the efforts by Hammes - and Landmark X, and the Mansion Hill Neighborhood Coalition - to push through this plan?

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