We need to talk about the enormous white elephant at 110 South Mall Avenue.
More to the point, Mayor Paul TenHaken needs to talk about it.
In return for public spending that has swelled to more than $22 million, Sioux Falls residents were promised a gleaming tower of entwined commerce and civic infrastructure – a symbol of our city core moving confidently and steadily to the next level.
After a contentious five-year saga of fits and false starts, we’re left with something that looks more like it belongs in downtown Chernobyl post-meltdown.
While the massive concrete block hulking at the eastern entry to downtown Sioux Falls may have started out as former mayor Mike Huether’s folly, at a year and a half into TenHaken’s tenure, it’s his millstone now.
He committed early on to seeing the Village on the River project through as the mixed-use, public-private venture it was intended to be. The city’s original deal with Legacy Developments splintered amid the aftermath of the deadly collapse of the Copper Lounge building under the auspices of contractor Hultgren Construction.
Vowing greater transparency, TenHaken pressed forward with a reworked deal with Village River Group, LLC, even after it was revealed that three of that company’s four guarantors held ownership stakes in Hultgren Construction. This spring, that deal also fell apart when the new development company tried to revise deliverables and failed to meet contractual timelines.
Now we’re faced with setting aside our dreams of a silk purse in return for a sow’s ear.
This week, the Sioux Falls city council approved the mayor’s request – but only after sharply criticizing his administration’s tight-lipped stance on the project – to dig even deeper into municipal coffers to close empty elevator shafts and cap columns on the seven-level structure.
For the foreseeable future, those columns will support eight additional stories of air rather than the hotel, retail and other commercial spaces that were the justification for the parking ramp’s premium cost of construction.
An Argus Leader investigation this summer threw cold water on the narrative that, even without the demand that the now-dormant commercial aspect of the development would have created, our downtown needed additional parking on anything close to the grand scale of 500 more slots.
An average of almost 600 current spaces stood empty during weekdays, double that on the weekends in existing city-owned ramps.
This editorial board does recognize, however – as did the city council when it approved that additional $1.5 million this week – that the erstwhile public-private development must start earning a fraction of its keep by opening up for leasing.
But we find the current state of affairs unacceptable. The “finishing” touches on such a huge and visible public initiative should excite and energize the citizens of Sioux Falls. Instead, we stand disappointed and disillusioned.
We make no pretense that this project’s original potential can be realized with signatures on the dotted line anytime soon. Likely litigation by Village River Group guarantors against the city will keep possible future developers at arm’s length until it is either resolved or dismissed.
Plans can be re-laid, not necessarily from scratch but not far from it. The possibility of future private development on the property has been more hinted at than promised by the mayor’s office.
Yet we believe that the original vision of the Village on the River project would infuse our city center with a fresh burst of vitality.
TenHaken has an opportunity to begin earning back public trust in City Hall. Selling downtown surface parking lots owned by the city, a move his office has pitched, could not only replenish the depleted municipal parking fund. It could also spur new development to fill Village on the River’s void and build demand for the new ramp’s surplus of parking spaces.
Sioux Falls can get excited again given an inspiring vision of what the elephant in our downtown room might look like someday, even if it is at this point 10 or 15 years in the future.
It’s TenHaken’s job now to set his team loose to articulate it.
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