During his appearance at the UW Memorial Union a few years ago, James Howard Kunstler waxed enthusiastic about all the construction cranes he had seen downtown.
Kunstler was here to promote The Long Emergency, his 2005 book forecasting 21st-century gloom due to rising oil prices, global warming and other catastrophes. A harsh critic of sprawling suburbs, he suggested that these high-density urban infill developments and their short supply lines to agricultural resources would boost the city's prospects during the tough times to come.
Those cranes were then building a handful of condo and apartment towers (all topping 10 stories within a few blocks of the state Capitol), the redevelopment of University Square, the expansion of Meriter and St. Mary's hospitals and the second phase of Block 89.
Since then, it's as if every developer in town took Kunstler's words to heart. The strip of land between lakes Mendota and Monona has been building skyward at an accelerated pace.
Brad Murphy, the city's planning unit director, estimates that since 2005 more than 1,100 residential units have been added to the isthmus. He also tallies the investment in commercial and residential construction on the isthmus during the same period at around $475 million.
Purple Markers = Projects completed since Feb. 2005
Blue-Green Markers = Projects in progress
Pink Markers = Projects proposed
"Some really big projects are driving those numbers," says Murphy. University Square alone may account for about one-third of the amount. But dozens of smaller projects also contribute toward recent and proposed infill.
And while smaller condo and rental developments may signal a softening residential market on the isthmus, a four-story, $15 million, 74,600-square-foot office building under way at 800 University Bay Dr. exemplifies sustained demand for Class A commercial space. By the time construction started in December, it was already 81% leased by three anchor tenants.
Designed with such features as high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, a rain garden and green roof, the project will be convenient to Madison Metro bus service, bike routes and rail service projected by the Transport 2020 plan.
"I think infill development on the isthmus is really going to be accelerated in the future, especially as oil prices rebound," says Paul Lenhart of Krupp General Contractors, the construction firm on the project. His forecast is tempered by recent economic indicators, but only to a point. "I do think we'll see a downturn in the coming years," he cautions, "but it's only temporary. There's always new people moving to Dane County and Madison. We're a magnet."
Four years ago, then-Isthmus editor Marc Eisen highlighted the downtown building binge, then already in full flower, in a cover story entitled "Boom Town." (For a link to that report, see this story at TheDailyPage.com.)
Accompanying that article was a list of 50 commercial and residential projects - including a dozen on the UW-Madison campus - that had been completed in 2004, were under construction or proposed.
Among the major projects joining Meriter, St. Mary's and University Square on his list: the second phase of the Overture Center, the Dane County Courthouse, Nolen Shore, Madison Mark and the Marina Condos - along with a handful of proposed projects, such as Statehouse West and Archipelago Village, that did not come to fruition.
Four years later, despite the economic downturn, it's possible to generate a substantial new list.
The propulsive surge of infill redevelopments on the UW-Madison campus merits a story on its own. The west-side University Research Park, which houses fledgling biotech startups, is about to expand into 6,000 square feet of space in the old Marquip Building at 1245 E. Washington. Scheduled to open early this year, the Metro Innovation Center will feature 10 incubator suites for engineering, IT, medical-device and business-consulting startups. And there's ample room for expansion at Marquip.
Meanwhile, Google plans to establish its Madison office in 5,000 square feet of space leased in the Rifken Group's Harvester Plaza redevelopment. In addition to the historic 40,000-square-foot main building, the $7 million project includes an adjacent 11,000-square-foot warehouse.
"I think people like the eclectic density in the downtown environment," says Martin Rifken, the group's principal. "I think people want to put their cars away and not drive as much. Last summer's gas prices scared the hell out of a lot of people."
The isthmus' enormous employment base and cultural vitality render it an obvious choice for anyone who wants to live within walking distance of work and entertainment. And while Rifken perceives an older demographic for the high-end condos that have sprouted here since the turn of the century, he also sees first-time homebuyers opting for smaller condo units in the $150,000-$200,000 range.
If there are any limits to isthmus infill, they may be as emotional as they are physical. Neighbors have put the kibosh on 10- or 12-story ambitions they felt were out of scale with the surroundings. That's frustrating for developers like Rifken.
Neighborhoods, he says, "should have input, there's no question about it." But to achieve greater density, "you have to allow the developer to go up in the air and allow for some height."
Lance McGrath of McGrath Associates sees abundant opportunity for further infill development on the isthmus. With the firm's Union Corners project on hold and under revision, the company is pursuing smaller projects. Given the recent economic downturn, he allows, "I think everyone is cautious at this point in terms of what they're moving forward with."
With significant changes pending in the mortgage industry, McGrath suggests, "I think it's going to be more difficult for first-time home buyers to buy new homes." As a result, young professionals may look to the isthmus condo market.
Chris Schramm of Urban Land Interests echoes McGrath's tone. "I think we approach everything we do cautiously," he says. Still, his firm has purchased the U.S. Bank building and the adjacent Tenney Building on the Capitol Square. "We've got some fairly major renovations planned."
Schramm says such projects are possible due to the growth of existing tenants, like expanding downtown law firms, rather than entities relocating from other places. But he sees "10-, 20- and 30-year opportunities" in the east rail corridor, where other developers are engaged in "a little pioneering" that may build momentum there.
The architectural firm of Potter Lawson has been involved in a host of infill projects, including the 45,000-square-foot National Conference of Bar Examiners office building at 601 W. Wilson, University Square and the aforementioned project now under way at 800 University Bay Dr.
Doug Hursh, the firm's director of design, notes that University Square's 12 stories, which contain 1.1 million square feet of residential, office and retail space, occupy 3.2 acres. Had it been built as a typical three-story suburban development, its footprint would have encompassed 40.4 acres.
While the pace of infill development may wax and wane, there is general consensus that it can be sustained. Asked when the isthmus might reach its eventual carrying capacity, Hursh says, "I don't think we'll see it in our lifetime."
Whatever happened with that project?
A backward glance at Isthmus' 2005 story
Most of the projects under construction or proposed at the time of Marc Eisen's "Boom Town" cover story in 2005 (see TheDailyPage.com for original story and map) have since been completed. Among them: Tobacco Lofts at Findorff Yards, winner of a 2006 Madison Trust for Historic Preservation award for commercial rehabilitation; McGrath Associates' Nolen Shore condominiums; the office/residential project at 100 Wisconsin Ave.; Phase II of the Block 89 redevelopment and of the Overture Center for the Arts; the Dane County Courthouse; Marina Condos; Old Market Row; Trademark 701; and Monroe Commons.
A handful of projects proposed at the time of Eisen's story have not come to fruition. Among these are Statehouse West (at the Buckeye Lot); Block 115; redevelopment of the Don Miller lot; the proposed transformation of the Mautz Paint site to Archipelago Village; and the Sunrise Oil site.
The more recent completion of projects such as University Square has landed them on the accompanying list contemporary to this feature. Other projects, such as Capitol West, are still in progress and also on the accompanying list. And the proposed mixed-use Iron Works project was reconceived as the Goodman Community Center, which opened last September.