Rhode Island-based Gilbane Inc., the firm selected to manage redevelopment of the Hill Farms state office property, has worked on other high-profile projects in Wisconsin including the new terminal for the Dane County Regional Airport and the Potawatomi Casino in downtown Milwaukee.
On Monday, state officials announced they were negotiating with the Gilbane team on the Hill Farms project, which includes constructing a new $197 million office building to house the Department of Transportation and other key state agencies.
As part of the deal, Gilbane would purchase the balance of the 21-acre Hill Farms site along with a state office building on Badger Road to be vacated as part of the broader project.
Gilbane is one of the largest private real estate development and construction firms in the U.S. Family-owned since its founding in 1873, the company has offices in Milwaukee and 50 other cities worldwide in addition to its headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island.
Its most visible projects include the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum, the Vietnam War Memorial and the WWII Memorial In Washington, D.C. and the Winter Olympics venues in Lake Placid, New York.
The Gilbane team for Hill Farms — which includes C.D. Smith construction of Fond du Lac, HGA architects of Minneapolis and SmithGroup JJR of Detroit with offices in Madison — was selected over three other bidders on what would be the largest public sector real estate development in Wisconsin history.
Other bidders included teams headed by T. Wall Enterprises of Middleton, M.A. Mortenson Construction of Minneapolis and McCaffery Interests of Chicago.
T. Wall chief Terrence Wall is a past GOP candidate for U.S. Senate and a campaign contributor to Gov. Scott Walker, sparking speculation his firm might have an inside track on the deal.
“I suppose they could have gone with the local guy (Wall) but maybe with the governor’s presidential aspirations they didn’t want to add any controversy,” said state Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison), who represents the Hill Farms area in the state Assembly.
One insider told the Cap Times that T. Wall’s plan for up to 10 apartment buildings on the site was opposed by some members of the selection committee concerned that too much residential development might conflict with state office functions or compete with existing landlords in the neighborhood.
Ald. Chris Schmidt, who represents the Hill Farms area on the Madison City Council, said he is anxious to see the draft plans and get the project moving forward. The city is in the process of approving a new long-range land use plan for the University Hill Farms neighborhood that specifically leaves the state property blank.
“I wanted a team that is seeking to invest in what is best for our community and that is what I hope we have once negotiations are complete,” he said.
Mike Lawton, who chairs the planning committee for the Hill Farms Neighborhood Association, is also waiting to hear more.
“We look forward to meeting with the development team that has been selected for the Hill Farms development project at their earliest opportunity to discuss the project and any concerns that we have, including those listed in our letter to the [Department of Administration] Secretary last fall,” he said.
The Hill Farms project has been the subject of much discussion since the state quietly posted a request for proposals in October, giving interested parties just a few weeks to put together a plan for the entire site. That curious timeline and the lack of information coming out of the Department of Administration only added to the rumor mill.
State officials are still not releasing the names of a special selection committee that DOA secretary Mike Huebsch said includes representatives of the affected state agencies along with adjacent property owners. No city or neighborhood representatives were included in the selection process.
On Monday, DOA chief legal counsel Greg Murray denied an open records request for the names of those serving on the Hill Farms project selection committee, saying that information needed to remain confidential until negotiations are complete.
“We have determined that until negotiation of the contract is completed, the requested information must remain confidential for competitive or bargaining reasons,” Murray wrote in a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal, which had also requested the committee member IDs. “Evaluators may be discouraged from serving if they believe that their names will be released while the procurement process is ongoing.”
That legal opinion drew a sharp rebuke Tuesday from the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, who said it “continues an obnoxious pattern of official secrecy regarding this public project.”
Bill Lueders recounted how the DOA has refused to release the names of any of some 40 firms who toured the site in October. He said there is no excuse for keeping those names secret or for refusing to name the team selected — even after a decision was made and announced at a state Building Commission meeting last month.
“There is no good reason for this secrecy,” said Lueders. “It runs counter to Wisconsin's traditions of open government and it breeds justifiable distrust among the public. The DOA needs to stop acting as though it has something to hide. Unless, of course, it does.”
The state is looking for a developer to build a 600,000-square-foot building on a portion of the Hill Farms site with up to 2,500 parking spaces. The new office complex would house employees of the DOT along with workers from the state Public Service Commission and Department of Employee Trust Funds.
ETF is currently located in the Badger Road office building at Park Street and the Beltline. The deal requires the winning Hill Farms bidder to purchase that 4.35 acre property and the building itself.
The Hill Farms redevelopment was first proposed by the Jim Doyle Administration a decade ago, with a complete land use plan for the site approved by the city of Madison in 2007.
But the real estate bust sent the project to the back burner where it languished until Gov. Scott Walker, in his first budget, ordered a study of surplus state properties that could be sold to the private sector.
While the Gilbane website lists the 2005 redevelopment of the Dane County Regional Airport as one of its “Success Stories,” airport spokesman Brent McHenry says the firm came into the project in the middle to work with Tri-North Builders.
“They were the construction manager; Tri-North was the boots on the ground,” he said.
Gilbane is listed as the No. 5 largest construction management firm in the U.S. by Engineering News Record, with revenues of $2.9 billion in 2011, the recent figure available.