Tim Anderson/Madison Design Professionals Workgroup
The latest proposal for Law Park envisions the downtown waterfront connection dreamed of for more than a century. Mayor Paul Soglin has asked city staff to investigate its feasibility.
In 1959, bad boy English architectural critic Ian Nairn began a 10,000-mile tour of the United States that produced his bracing 1965 book, The American Landscape: A Critical View. The expected stops were made in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, but the acerbic Brit also got off the beaten track.
Could he have been meaner than when he trashed Albuquerque as “one of the stupidest wastes of human endeavor on this earth” for its failure to capitalize on its magnificent setting between the Rio Grande River and the Rockies? Well, yeah.
Nairn, who loved a good pint and who succumbed to the complications of alcoholism in 1983, also drove through Madison one fine summer day. Motoring towards the downtown he was gobsmacked by the “fantastic” view of the Capitol nestled between the lakes.
Here, finally, was an American city that seemingly captured the uniqueness of its landscape: “...the first view of Madison across Lake Monona is a catharsis, like the first view of Chartres or Venice.” Even better, Nairn found the Capitol Square marvelously platted with a formal axis “the right length, the right size” leading to a bluff overlooking the lake ... and a sea of cars below him.
Nairn was aghast.
He delivered perhaps the nastiest slam to Madison and its pretension of having the most beautiful state Capitol in the land. The disconnect between the Capitol Square and the beckoning shores of Lake Monona “is a slap across the face with a cold, wet fish, one of the cruelest disappointments in America” Nairn wrote in disgust.
“It could be so easily fixed,” he sighed. These are familiar words. They’ve been said time and again for more than a century (by John Nolen, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Wesley Peters, Kenton Peters, David Mollenhoff, Doug Kozel, Tim Anderson and other dreamers). Nairn proposed Savannah, famous for its neighborhood squares and its riverfront embrace, as inspiration for Madison.
He was incredulous the city hadn’t seized the opportunity. “This is the case of a townscape potential shouting so loud it almost deafens you,” Nairn declared.
It’s time to make good on Madison’s waterfront promise.
Sure, 57 years after Nairn’s visit, a realist might argue everything and nothing has changed downtown. That’s to say, even with the tidal wave of construction, Law Park remains as isolated as ever from the Capitol Square. From Blair Street to Broom Street there is no sensible pedestrian access to Law Park. Not even Monona Terrace changed that dynamic.
The celebrated Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired convention center may overlook Lake Monona. But its awkward elevator connection to the waterfront is not what Nairn had in mind. And it certainly doesn’t achieve the dramatic tiered public terraces leading to a grand, mile-long esplanade along the waterfront that the great planner John Nolen proposed in his magisterial program for Madison’s growth, published in 1911 as Madison: A Model City.
Inspired by the great waterfront cities of Europe, John Nolen (below right) proposed a prominent esplanade along what is now Law Park. The city rejected the idea and eventually built a six-lane highway that it perversely named for him.
You should know that in an act of stunning cluelessness Madison honored Nolen in 1967 by naming the roadway for him that destroyed the very setting he wanted to grace with a Barcelona-style waterfront esplanade for urban strollers. Yes...This writer has his opinions. I’m a Nolen enthusiast who helped organize a 1995 Isthmus-sponsored conference on his Madison legacy.
Nolen, who died in 1937, was the first great American city planner, a proponent of the “City Beautiful” movement, as historian David Mollenhoff chronicled in Madison: A History of the Formative Years. Nolen’s vision of an enlightened and improved Madison helped create the city we love today — the Capitol view protected, the UW campus expanded to Eagle Heights, the State Street commercial district spotlighted, the nature preserve at the Arboretum, the massing of government buildings between the Capitol and Monona Terrace, the expansive network of urban parks, even the dream of affordable housing “for all the people.” That’s John Nolen’s vision of Madison.
It’s all there, folks, except for the harmonious meeting of the downtown and Lake Monona blocked by the heavily trafficked roadway confounding John Nolen’s legacy when it is supposed to honor it.
There’s reason for optimism.
A serious case can be made that Madison is at a transformative moment in its history, well situated to grow and prosper in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. The city’s tech-fueled rise has made Madison the star of the Wisconsin economy. UW-Madison, bolstered by a $3 billion building boom and a successful campus redesign and expansion, is a powerful engine.
We got game.
Yup, there are bedeviling problems in the Madison area involving race, poverty and education. Not to mention a troubled relationship with a hostile state government. But a growing city with good leadership can deal with all of this.
Reality is that successful cities can reinvent themselves with dizzying speed. We like to think change is slow and constant, but history shows cities can be transformed in a decade or two. (Exhibit A is the stunning change in New York from the financial and social chaos in the 1970s to a full-throttled turnaround in the 1990s.) Madison’s big pivot came in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Community leaders fashioned the “Madison Compromise,” which opened the door to manufacturing. A new east-side factory district boomed along East Washington Avenue, as Mollenhoff chronicled.
A progressive-minded industrialist, John H. Johnson, was the Judith Faulkner of his day, owning two plants that made farm implements and machine tools and that employed 600 well-paid employees at a time when the city’s population was around 20,000.
Today’s tech-fired boom in Dane County, which owes so much to Faulkner’s Epic Systems’ breakout business in electronic health records, is the sort of transformative moment that comes once a century for a community. The overriding question: Can Madison make the best of it, including capitalizing on the intersection of Lake Monona with the city?
Not just downtown either. But reimagining a 21st-century John Nolen Drive all the way up to Quann, Olin and Turville parks to the Alliant Energy Center to the South Beltline and to the overlooked neighborhoods of south Madison?
“This is the next big piece,” says Rob Gottschalk, a planner with Vandewalle and Associates who has studied the John Nolen corridor. “The central city has grown and matured to the point we can now start focusing on the corridor.”
Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, gets it. So does Dane County Board chair Sharon Corrigan, her colleague and south-side Supv. Sheila Stubbs, County Clerk Scott McDonell, as well as business leader Susan Schmitz of Downtown Madison Inc.
“It’s a game-changer,” Schmitz says of the recent waterfront connection proposed for Law Park by the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup. “Improved access is on everybody’s list for the downtown.”
Like Gottschalk, Brandon, who served on the advisory board for the Vandewalle study, argues for a comprehensive game plan for the full corridor, including the Alliant Energy Center. “There is tremendous opportunity to create connectivity and economic development,” he says.
Indeed, a forward-thinking strategy for the county-owned 165-acre Alliant campus should be a key community challenge, as he, Corrigan, McDonell and Stubbs all argue. Surrounded by parks and the Goodman Aquatic Center, Alliant is the linchpin of 400 publicly controlled acres in a fragmented and sometimes impoverished part of town.
Pulling it all together in a comprehensive plan could simultaneously enhance lake access and recreational opportunities at Olin and Turville parks, strengthen Dane County’s convention and exhibition business at the Alliant complex and further economic growth along the South Beltline and in struggling south Madison.
All of these goals — celebrating the lakes, creating jobs, fighting poverty — rank high on just about everyone’s list of community goals, Brandon points out.
The good news is that the groundwork has been laid. There is no shortage of provocative ideas for improving the John Nolen corridor.
Start with Law Park. No one has put more thought into it than Madison’s great lone-wolf architect Kenton Peters. He’s a defiant modernist in a city that prefers its new buildings to be historically deferential. Peters’ standout projects — including the federal courthouse and the Marina Condominiums — have always caused a stir.
Over the past four decades the 85-year-old has unveiled a succession of dramatic plans to build over John Nolen Drive to Law Park. Everything from an urban shopping center, to Madison College’s main campus, to a convention center at the foot of Pinckney Street, to the urban park he now champions.
But the strong-willed Peters, who is a bad fit for Madison’s convoluted civic deliberations, no longer gets the time of day from Madison officials. “I’ve been disappointed in their lack of interest,” he says. “The number-one priority in the Downtown Plan is celebrating the lake. But they have done nothing and discouraged efforts to do something.”
The Madison Design Professionals Workgroup, which includes Kozel, Anderson, Ed Linville and others, seems to be getting more traction with its plan, called the Nolen Waterfront Vision. Now in its third (or maybe it’s the 2.5) iteration, their proposal is similar to Kenton Peters’. It would create a nine-acre park over John Nolen Drive with several tiers of underground parking extending from the convention center.
Tim Anderson/Madison Design Professionals Workgroup
The Law Park plan proposed by the Downtown Design Professionals Workgroup would build a park — 1,500 feet long and 200 feet wide over John Nolen Drive — and about 500 stalls of underground parking. It would feature a marina and hilly berms landscaped for casual outdoor gatherings. The shoreline would lose its riprap boulders for wetland plantings and boardwalk.
An earlier controversial idea to sink the road has been dropped, though the architects call for an “underpass” at the Blair Street intersection that would separate crosstown traffic (John Nolen Drive is also a segment of State 151) from local drivers headed back and forth from downtown to the near east side.
That intersection — a tangled mess of four roads, a train track, a bicycle/pedestrian path and a flight zone for ducks and geese (I exaggerate) — is hugely dysfunctional. It disrupts what should be the natural synergy of the resurgent downtown flowing into the vibrant Marquette neighborhood.
You have to wonder how much unrealized value could be uncorked if the intersection were tamed and Lake Monona laps against a new downtown park/marina featuring the unbuilt Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse.
Yep, that 1893 plan — briefly revived in the 1980s and then shelved for the construction of Monona Terrace — is part of the workgroup’s vision, too. As Mollenhoff points out, this would make for a neat symmetry. The boathouse was perhaps the first project Wright designed after leaving mentor Louis Sullivan’s practice in Chicago, while Monona Terrace was the last project he worked on before his death in 1959.
“To have those two prize pieces within 1,200 feet of each other on the Madison lakeshore — well, that’s one of the coolest facts you’re ever going to trip across,” says Mollenhoff, who is co-author (with Mary Jane Hamilton) of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace: The Enduring Power of a Civic Vision.
© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Taliesin architect William Wesley Peters (below right) proposed a unified vision for the western shore of Lake Monona that was 50 years ahead of its time.
Taliesin architect William Wesley Peters was unrelated to Kenton Peters, except for talent. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “Frank Lloyd Wright’s right arm” and a “renowned architect” for his own work, Wes Peters served as the structural engineer for Wright’s most famous buildings. He also led a Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation team that produced the magnificent Monona Basin Plan for Madison in 1967 that, in his words and emphasis “proposes [developing] the entire western shore of Lake Monona as one site.”
It is a knockout, big-picture marvel that envisions an amphitheater and indoor concert venue at Turville Park with a marina and other recreational facilities. Where the convention center now sits, Peters proposed another iteration of Wright’s 1938 plan to put city hall on the waterfront.
You can see an overview of the basin plan in, of all places, the Chocolaterian Cafe, 2004 Atwood Ave. Owner Leanne Cordisco has hung one of the oversized 3.5-by-8 foot design panels (on loan from the Madison Public Library) on a wall. It’s a killer display.
Nothing came of Peters’ plan, but the ideas have endured. His dream of making Turville and Olin Parks a recreational mecca was resurrected in the 2014 Nolen Centennial Plan promoted by the civic-minded supermarket entrepreneurs Tim and Kevin Metcalfe. Digging into their own pockets, they hired Vandewalle and Associates (Gottschalk was lead planner) as design consultants and plumbed various stakeholders for their ideas.
The resulting plan, which basically starts at the South Beltline and ends at Monona Terrace, has the sort of big-picture thinking that has been sorely missing for that part of town.
VandeWalle and Associates
The Nolen Centennial Project, funded by the Metcalfe family, proposed an “iconic art feature” on a Lake Monona overlook (left) similar to “The Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The plan also would connect the Alliant Energy Center to the lake by building a “land bridge” (right) over traffic-clogged John Nolen Drive.
It includes the notion of a wide, pedestrian-friendly “land bridge” over car-jammed John Nolen Drive to connect south Madison and the Alliant campus to Lake Monona and Law Park and to those enhanced recreational venues in Olin and Turville parks.
“It’s an incredible canvas,” Gottschalk says of those 400 or so acres. “It’s in the heart of the city, but you don’t really think of it that way because it’s not comprehensively developed.”
Nothing came of the Nolen Centennial Plan either. (Familiar story, that.) But its core ideas are carried forward in the Dane County Board’s ongoing effort to reimagine the Alliant Energy Center as a metro dynamo for tourism, trade exhibitions and overall economic growth.
Sharpening the challenge is the fact that Alliant is expected to pay its own way. The county doesn’t subsidize its operation like the city underwrites the Overture Center. Nor does Alliant benefit from the city’s room tax like Monona Terrace does.
Still, after a decade of decline in which Alliant lost money, laid off employees and ate into its reserves, the county-owned facility has stabilized its finances and reaffirmed its relationship with its greatest client, the six-day World Dairy Expo. But fears remain strong that the 49-year-old complex — 2.5 miles from downtown — is just too musty and isolated to compete in the modern age of amenity-friendly conventions.
County Clerk McDonell, who preceded Corrigan as county board chair, puts it bluntly: “There’s nothing for people to do there. They have to drive into Madison to get to a restaurant. That’s terrible. There is one crappy adjacent hotel — the Clarion. Go there. Walk around. It’s a dump, and it’s not even old. The Sheraton is better, but it’s across all those lanes of traffic. They’re putting in all those new hotels, but they’re not adjacent [to the Alliant complex] either.
“This is bad planning,” he says.
The Hammes Company’s report on the aging Alliant complex has recast the discussion on what’s required for it to stay competitive. The far-reaching recommended action includes tearing down and replacing the old Coliseum as part of a $500 million redevelopment that would include both private and public investment in and around the Alliant center. A $139,000 market study is now underway to better gauge the possible economic impact.
Alliant’s future is in jeopardy, warns Stubbs, who sits on the committee plotting the county’s course. “Something needs to be done. It needs to be done now.”
The goal is to bring the Alliant Energy Center to national prominence and to secure the biggest exhibitions possible. Alliant’s success will be shared by the broader community, she and other supporters say.
“At the end of the day my neighbors want jobs. They want development,” Stubbs says of her south-side district. (They also don’t want music blasting out of the Coliseum grounds, but that’s another story.)
Corrigan is on the same page with Stubbs. “Our vision is intrinsically tied to the whole area,” she says. “We have to make good economic decisions for the campus, but we also have to recognize that the success of the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods are very much connected.”
This is big stuff. Brandon says planning Alliant’s future necessarily requires a broad vision of the Madison area’s future. “If we piecemeal it or Band-Aid it, we lose the once-in-a-city’s-lifetime opportunity to address two of our largest challenges — creating economic opportunity in the south side and celebrating Lake Monona,” he says.
This is a tough, tough challenge politically and financially.
Take the county. The split between Corrigan’s county board and County Executive Joe Parisi over the Alliant Center’s future is wide and may not be bridgeable. While board liberals and conservatives alike want to explore an expansive remaking of the center, Parisi is against it.
“There’s a narrative out there that I’m standing on the sidelines,” he admits. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” The county exec says he led the charge to replace Alliant’s aging barns with the $24 million New Holland Pavilions that drew both state and private contributions. “I’m the one responsible for getting Alliant back in the black.”
Parisi disagrees that the Coliseum needs to be torn down. He’s also emphatic that the county can’t afford the $120 million public investment that the consultant suggests may be required. At best he favors “affordable, incremental improvements” at Alliant, which doesn’t sound anything at all like what the county board is investigating.
Parisi, who is mentioned as a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2018, is just trying “to kick this can farther down the road” so someone else has to deal with the difficult decisions, McDonell complains.
Politics are further muddied by the fact that the Alliant Center is in the vestigial town of Madison, whose disconnected remnants will be annexed by the cities of Fitchburg and Madison six years from now, according to a 2003 pact. Mayor Paul Soglin’s recent move to speed up annexation (to December) sent his Common Council enemies into a tizzy, complaining that the mayor is acting without consultation.
Soglin’s point is that without quicker annexation the city can’t do anything about Alliant until 2022. “The county as the owner has to have some sense of purpose for the site,” he adds. “That clearly doesn’t exist.”
On Law Park, Soglin is curious enough to want to know if it’s doable. He’s instructed city staff to investigate the technical issues of building over John Nolen Drive. But other capital projects seem dearer to him. The Public Market qualifies as the great white whale of Soglin’s watch. He’s also proposed spending $150 million on a citywide fiber optic system. Did I mention he and the council are also battling over just when the midtown police and fire stations should be built?
How yet another capital project costing hundreds of millions of dollars fits in is a good question. City Planning Chief Natalie Erdman points out the city is committed to a bunch of downtown projects that are already pushing the city’s staffing and financial capacity — the renovation of the Municipal Building, reconstruction of the Government East parking ramp, adding a new ramp for the Capitol East District and building the massive Judge Doyle Square development.
“Our downtown plan does support that concept of a lakefront connection,” Erdman says of the two Law Park proposals. “But that’s a long-term investment. I don’t see it in our current priorities. That doesn’t mean it won’t move along as we study that area.”
Soglin suggests “regime change” is needed at the Capitol before sufficient state funding is imaginable.
The problem is that the clock is ticking.
Simply put, the best way to do city planning is before backhoes are scraping earth and the cranes are lifting steel beams for new construction. The city got it right on Capitol East. While those blocks were still comatose, hearings were held, committees met, consultants hired, and plans plotted. Now Capitol East is bursting with life with restaurants, housing, offices and a major supermarket.
Lacking that template for growth, the John Nolen corridor is already seeing piecemeal development. That’s a problem. “As more properties develop, our opportunities to improve access to Law Park diminish,” says city engineer Rob Phillips. Only two good sites remain for a downtown connection, he points out: the State of Wisconsin Investment Board parcel and the McGrath property earmarked for a controversial 14-story apartment complex, both on East Wilson Street.
The same troublesome dynamic is in play at the other end of the John Nolen corridor. “There is a timing issue,” says Gottschalk. “The market is already coming. You’re seeing land-use and development decisions being made in the vacuum of a comprehensive vision for the entire area.”
He adds: “Things are going to be built, and then you’re stuck with it for the next 40 or 50 years.”
That’s why the planning now is imperative. Inaction could mean no action later. Corridor development would be phased over decades, probably beginning with an Alliant Energy Center makeover keyed to the lakes and to south Madison. Then to the expanded Law Park connecting to the Capitol Square. Finally to tunneling under the Blair Street intersection to separate crosstown traffic from the downtown bustle, which Phillips says could take two decades to plan, finance and execute.
Here’s the upshot. Good plans have always given Madison an uplifting vision of civic improvement. The chamber’s Brandon says we shouldn’t get hung up on the money. That can short-circuit the brainstorming. Better to first figure out what challenges confront the city. What problems need to be solved. “Money will follow good vision, and money will follow good projects,” as DMI’s Schmitz puts it.
That’s it. The John Nolen corridor presents a heck of an opportunity. The big question is if the Madison area has the leaders to finally fulfill the city’s century-old promise.