A New Downtown

Downtown Madison is in for a big change.

The Evers administration is proposing the sale of GEF 2 and GEF 3 on Webster Street, and the old State Office Building that houses the Department of Human Services’ central office at 1 West Wilson St. If it happens it would represent a dramatic, historic reduction in the footprint of state government in downtown Madison. It wasn’t so long ago that this would have set off fire alarms with city officials and legislators representing Madison. But not today.

From a state management perspective it makes a lot of sense. Evers’ Department of Administration secretary, Kathy Blumenfeld, comes from the private sector and she’s an accountant by training. She pulled together the numbers and concluded that hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance combined with a trend toward working at home and a hot real estate market made it obvious that this was the time to sell. 

What surprised me a bit was the reaction from Madison officials. In previous decades the city’s legislators and its mayor and alders fought for every state job they could get and keep. I would have had that reaction had this been proposed on my watch over a decade ago. 

The GEF buildings are unloved.

But the response as reported in the Wisconsin State Journal was enthusiastic support from both city staff and Downtown Madison Inc. president Jason Ilstrup. I was a bit surprised that no city elected officials, like Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway or longtime downtown Ald. Mike Verveer, was quoted in the story. On a matter of this significance I’m not sure why it was left to city staff to comment. Nonetheless, I assume that staff wouldn’t have said what they did without taking their lead from the fourth floor. 

Over his long career, now retired Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) made it a priority to keep and grow state government downtown. I’m glad he did because for decades we needed those jobs to bolster a decaying center. 

But now the pump has been primed and downtown is a self-propelled machine. Madison has become more economically diverse. State government is still important, but the city is more confident about its private sector job base. The number of state jobs is not growing much while companies like Epic and Exact Sciences are expanding fast. Though Exact has had some recent layoffs, mirroring what’s been going on in tech, there’s every reason to be confident that those positions will return. Even if those businesses are not located downtown, a whole lot of their relatively young and affluent workers live there. 

And converting all that real estate to another use is good in another way. What Madison needs more now than at any time since the UW enrollment boom of the 1960s is housing. It’s likely that developers buying these properties will fill them with lots of apartments and ground floor retail. 

That’s not only needed to let supply catch up with demand in the housing market, but it means an even more bustling downtown. Madison used to rely on office workers to populate the Square during the day while things slowed down at night. Now the Square is hopping in the evenings, though daytime traffic hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic. So, fewer state office workers on a permanent basis is no small consideration, but on balance I agree with DMI. All things considered, this will be good for downtown. Who knows. With even more housing just off the Square we might even get a grocery store downtown. 

Shedding these state buildings is an idea that stands a chance of support in the Republican-dominated Legislature. In fact, most of it can be accomplished without them through actions by the state Building Commission, which Evers controls. But I suppose they could find ways to resist it if they wanted to, only why would they want to? It will save money and the real estate community should love it. And Blumenfeld is well liked by Republican members of the “accountants caucus” since she speaks their language. What’s not to like?

State jobs are a good thing because they’re recession resistant, but it’s also good to have a greater diversity of employers. It makes the city’s economy more resilient and people from different backgrounds with different talents and interests just makes for a more interesting place to live. That in itself is a powerful economic development tool. 

And, of course, from a city design standpoint, the GEF buildings are among the most unloved structures in the city, while the historic State Office Building is protected by historic designations. DOA also promises deed restrictions to double protections. 

Kathy Blumenfeld’s plan is a good thing for the state, and also for Madison. And the fact that local officials seem to be recognizing it as such marks an historic change in our city. 

This piece originally appeared in Isthmus.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “A New Downtown

  1. So I remember hearing about the GEF buildings coming down and I thought it was the children’s museum moving there, but I cannot find the story where I read that. It would have been in the last year. But I am certain that I did read there are plans that have been talked about for what will go in the place of those buildings for a while. Maybe that’s why there hasn’t been a reaction from officials. They know more than they are able to talk about right now while they work out the deal?


    1. I would think there would be all kinds of interest in these sites. As far as I know there is no process in place yet to decide who the state will deal with or how they will decide which project to choose. It will probably take at least a couple of years to play out even before the first building is closed.


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