City of Monona buys San Damiano—what's next?

Updated: Sep 16, 2020


This is an historic moment for the City of Monona. The enchanted property that sits near the north end of our city has remained private and exclusive for decades. But that's about to change. I've been receiving a lot of questions about what the plan is for the property so I'm writing this post to keep you, the new owners of the property, informed and aware of what will likely be the next steps.


BACKGROUND


To lay a little groundwork, earlier this year, the Norbertines petitioned at the Landmarks Commission to have the Frank Allis mansion demolished. The meeting at City Hall was standing room only and over a dozen people spoke in favor of saving the historic home. After that meeting, the Norbertines decided they would move forward with selling the property since it would now be on the tax roll because exclusive religious activities were no longer happening. The City established a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Norbertines to explore the feasibility of the City purchasing the land which expired on August 31.


Consultant David Allen conducted a feasibility study to explore whether or not there was capacity to fundraise for the purchase of the property since the City did not want to be the sole owner. It was determined through that feasibility study that it was not likely that a Friends of San Damiano group would be able to fundraise enough funds for the purchase. So the City decided to act to secure the property so we could control its fate. An agreement for $8.6 million for the purchase of the property was made with the Norbertines. There are no contingencies — Vatican approval is not in the contract so it's not contingent upon that despite what some of the news articles have reported. This is a cash offer set to close on June 1, 2021. A 501c3 nonprofit group has been established as the Friends of San Damiano charged with fundraising for the public portion of the land.


WHAT IT MEANS


Having the City as the owner means that you'll get to have your say in this development. Had it been sold to a developer, the City would not be able to dictate its future use. This is much larger than anything Monona has done before. It's almost 10 acres of mostly forested land and includes about 1,100 linear feet of shoreline. A project of this scale is best when controlled by the City. Having that control allows us to determine what happens there based on YOUR input because the taxpayers are now the owners of this property. So it's future use depends upon you.


As most of you know, I've been on the front lines of economic development in the City of Monona and the east side for the past six years. I'm thrilled to be at the table in the capacity as an Alder for this project and feel my expertise and connections in this area will help guide us in the direction of finding the highest and best use for San Damiano. I'll lay out below how developments of this scale typically work to help ease your mind if you have concerns about the financial liabilities and how this may impact your property taxes.


At this point, it seems to me that a public/private partnership may be the best use for a property of this magnitude. A public partnership with the County could also be feasible but I feel that the best option for the financial position for the City of Monona would be a public/private partnership. There is enough land there for a park and something that allows us to get some of the property on the tax roll while requiring it to be open to the public. Mononanites haven't had access to this property for decades so having access to it will be a fantastic change.


NEXT STEPS


The first step should be hiring a company that is experienced in conducting public input sessions, analyzing the challenges and opportunities of the shoreline and the property as a whole, and can develop an RFP for the City to send out for bid. We are fortunate to have a Monona resident who works with a company that has developed most of the Chicago lakefront parks and I'll be making that introduction to the City after this post is published. This is a big property and big ideas must be explored.


The second step is to start gathering public input through several formats of public input sessions including on site. These sessions will be your opportunity to tell us what you want to see happen and what you don't want to see happen. I've heard many of you say you do not want to see condos on the property while some of you have told me you do want to see this. The end result will be determined by the majority of public input received and the development proposals that are submitted and how they best work for the financial stability of the City and the residents.


The third step is to analyze the public input and draft guidelines of what the public wants to see as a result of that input. The guidelines would result in an RFP being issued to developers. One requirement should be that public access be allowed on the property. After the RFP is issued, the next steps of the process should begin which include reviewing the RFP's, gathering more public input, and deciding which development plan to accept.


IDEAS


Below are some ideas I'll throw out to you just to get you thinking about what might be possible. Please note that these are my ideas and no ideas have been discussed with Council yet. Also note that I'm a big ideas person! I don't believe we should be constrained by small ideas with this incredible opportunity we've been given.


We could require that a bike trail go through the property as the start of Monona's portion of the Monona Lake Loop. There is funding available on a federal level when lakefronts are developed for public use. There is also State and County funding available and we should consider all of these sources. We absolutely need to consider the shoreline and the challenges and opportunities it presents.


Might we be able to require a large pier like Edgewater Hotel so the public can enjoy the beautiful Capitol views of Lake Monona? Garver Feed Mill initially had 50 ecolodges included in their plan to be scattered around Starkweather Creek. Madison College students built many of those ecolodges (they're tiny homes) but Garver has put that plan on hold indefinitely so they are sitting there unused. Might we look at having 20 of them put on the property for nightly rentals or even up to one month rentals for executive tourism or short term housing? WPS and Widen are two Monona businesses that heavily use our hotels for executives staying for weeks. Or, might they be rented as afternoon cottages for rent on a daily basis for people to have cookouts and enjoy their new lakefront property?


Should we consider a boutique hotel along with the ecolodges/tiny homes as rentals and require a developer to create a new event center for Monona that accrues substantial amounts of room tax dollars? Or is it an ecolodge that partners with Rutabaga to do kayak tours in summer and ice fishing opportunities in winter. Maybe it includes Native American experiential components to honor the past use of the land? Totem poles, wigwams, educational signage, regular powwows could all be possible. We could even have an annual art competition where artists come in and paint the ecolodges/tiny homes each year.


Is there enough public input stating that we should work on our middle housing gap and look at Cottage Courtyards property similar to Troy Gardens complete with a community garden for a piece of the property? Do we consider moving the home next to the Dean House to create a little historic district on Monona Drive? The house does pose challenges given the state of disrepair but I have talked with professionals who believe it could be moved. As you can see, the ideas are endless! I challenge you to think about the amazing waterfront destinations you've visited and bring those ideas forward. Developers will be much more confident bidding on the project when they know what is expected of them. As you may recall, this is the process that was used for Garver Feed Mill and it resulted in four vastly different proposals from developers. This is the process I hope to see us use for this once in a lifetime opportunity.


I do feel that this is a great opportunity to honor the Dejope. The San Damiano property sits within the boundaries of the Monona Drive Mound Group so we could honor our ancestral and cultural past which has yet to be done in Monona. I've spoken with the State Archaeologists about the site and it's unlikely that there are any mounds on the property but it is still within the Monona Drive Mound Group.


Mistakes we should avoid include moving forward with public engagement before a company is hired to conduct the sessions, not thinking big enough, and selling any piece of that land for an undervalued amount.


IN CLOSING


In closing, it's important for residents to realize that with the City acquiring the property, you now get to have a say on what happens here. So, this is not a time to worry, but to celebrate this game changing moment for the City of Monona. I will continue to update you on the process.


The image below shows the Monona Drive Mound Group boundaries. Stone Bridge Park is outlined in purple for reference.


LIDAR image of San Damiano showing that there is not much evidence for mounds being present on the sight.

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