Downtown Madison continues bounceback but housing remains a challenge, report says

Developments, economics and public safety were discussed yesterday afternoon as Downtown Madison, Inc. (DMI) explored its 2023 report.

Downtown Madison, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy organization formed to support and revitalize downtown, discussed its most recent report during the Madison Chamber of Commerce’s Lunch(Up)date. The 2023 State of Downtown Report gave insights into how Madison has recovered since the COVID-19 pandemic and how the city is shaping up as expansion continues. 

Sheriff Kalvin Barrett also spoke during the meeting to give an update on public safety and the status of Madison’s new jail development.

“When you’re looking at the new report… some of the most positive information is on development and what’s happening with housing here in the downtown area,” said DMI president Jason Ilstrup.

Downtown Madison currently has around 8,000 housing units currently in development, Illstrup said. Data collected for the report show that 1,437 residential units were developed. The path to creating more housing, and especially affordable housing, is on the city’s mind as more developments are planned to address Madison’s ongoing housing crisis.

“We have the affordable housing issue … the definition of affordable is different for every single person, but the name of the game is you have to create more units and honestly more units at all sides,” Ilstrup said. “We just need to build more units, and downtown is a place that can happen.”

Location is an issue Madison residents, both downtown and elsewhere, have voiced as a concern. New downtown units tend to be, as Ilstrup notes, less affordable, but he points out older units could be a means to meet current demands for the workforce to rent and stay closer to their work.

The average price for residential homes downtown is $539,946, up from 2022’s $500,532, according to the report. Homes outside of downtown averaged at $345,665 compared to last year’s $313,068.

“You want to make sure the bartender, the housekeeper, the front desk worker can live near their place of work. I think it’s a very important thing to do just for the community but also environmentally and sustainability and resiliency,” Illstrup said.

Other figures in the 2023 report show trends in office vacancies, tourism, businesses and employees downtown.

Office vacancies continue to trend up with 2023 at 16.9%. During the COVID pandemic, office vacancies were at 9.05%. The office vacancy trend in Madison has steadily risen since then but remains lower than in 2013 where vacancies were at 17.17%.

Downtown businesses are down from pre-pandemic levels, with the figure sitting at 1,961 and 49,637 employees. In 2020, downtown businesses were at 1,992 with 50,627 employees.

Tourism is back to near pre-pandemic numbers with visitors listed at 9.4 million between 2022-2023. Between 2019-2020, the figure was 9.89 million visitors.

Barrett discussed public safety and the development of a new Dane County Jail downtown .

The bidding process on the new jail development closed on Nov. 14. The only bid came from Miron Construction at $160 million, Barrett said, about $27 million over budget. The new facility is slated to have 825 beds.

“The decision makers, which include our Dane County Board as well as our county executive, have to determine whether or not we’re going to go back out for a rebid or if we’re going to borrow the additional $27 million to get the project started,” Barrett said.

The old jail, at 210 Martin Luther King Jail Blvd., was built in the 1950s. Its purpose, as Barrett noted at the time, was to meet the values of the community during the era. The era in which the jail was built predates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Our ultimate goal is to reduce recidivism and stop the cycle of crime, arrest, incarceration and release. We are unable to do that with an unsafe inhumane borderline unconstitutional facility that is really doing what it was designed to do in the 1950s,” Barrett said.

Issues at the current jail include structural issues that cause wings of the jail to be closed for safety reasons, according to Barrett.