When Lindsey Lee applied for a loan to open Cargo Coffee in a converted gas station on Park Street in 2001, he got a cold reception. Five banks, he says, turned thumbs down. Park Street was a good place to sell scrap metal and used car parts, not cappuccinos, they told him.
Seven years later, Lee is selling more cups of joe at Cargo Coffee than at Ground Zero, his shop on Williamson Street. He sees this as a sign that Park Street, one of Madison's most heavily trafficked arteries, is rising above its wrong-side-of-the-tracks image.
"People don't view Park Street as negatively as they did 10 years ago," Lee says. He likens the shifting vibe to the gentrification of Williamson Street, which was "Madison's skid row" when he opened Ground Zero 11 years ago.
Less than a decade ago, agrees veteran south-side Ald. Tim Bruer, "you could fit everyone in a phone booth" who thought Park Street could be revitalized. Now, "there's a tremendous level of enthusiasm. We've seen more movement in the last two years than in the last two decades."
Among the most visible signs of change: The $174 million expansion of St. Mary's Hospital between Erin Street and Deleplaine Court, a recent boom of ethnic restaurants (Inka Heritage, Taj Indian, Taqueria Guadalajara and Vientiane Restaurant), a nightclub (R Place on Park), and even a tattoo parlor (Spike-O-Matic Tattoo).
But much of the street's growth is still on paper. Meanwhile, empty storefronts punctuate the streetscape of new businesses and updated faades.
There's even anecdotal evidence that crime is on the downswing. Steve O'Lear, a longtime resident, says he's been physically attacked three times in the last decade, but in "the last couple years, it's really gotten better. I think people are saying, 'We want a nice neighborhood so we can live in peace and harmony and raise our kids.' It's starting to change, but it could be changing faster."
City plans for development along South Park Street have been in the works since 2001, when the Madison Common Council appointed a neighborhood steering committee to guide the process. The collective digital weight of plans, surveys and reports generated since then might crash a computer.
The main projects include the expansion at St. Mary's and Meriter Hospitals on the corridor's north end and the renovation of Villager Mall and Park Bank on the south end. In the middle, the Wingra BUILD (Better Urban Infill Development) plan envisions changes within a 64-acre triangle that borders Park Street, Wingra Creek and Fish Hatchery Road, with the Morningstar Dairy site at its tip. (After years of dormancy, the former Morningstar Dairy building at the intersection of Park and Fish Hatchery was recently sold to a developer, according to Ald. Julia Kerr.)
This summer, the Villager Mall will break ground on Phase One of its renovation: a new library, reconstruction of the atrium, renovation of the entire mall and removal of the nearby gas station.
Also in the works are long-range plans to cultivate Park Street into a "biomedical corridor," a collaborative effort that includes local hospitals, the city, the UW-Madison and MATC. The plans call for concentrating medical research, services and education along the corridor to make it a "national medical center district."
The prospect of a rejuvenated, "international" street excites Jim Garner, owner of Sergenian's Floor Covering. But he says the city could do a better job of keeping the community and neighborhood committees informed of new developments. (Like most of the business owners and neighbors interviewed for this story, Garner was unaware of the upcoming renovations at Villager Mall.)
And many neighborhood residents and business owners involved in Park Street planning say they're frustrated with the overall slow pace of progress.
"It's my sense that there's been a loss of momentum in the improvement of Park Street," says Lee. "There's a lot of possibilities, but they need to be pushed forward; otherwise they'll languish."
Lee blames the lag in progress partly on the economic funk: "I feel bad that we didn't strike when the iron was hot in the '90s. There was a bump in the road after 9/11."
Even though his Park Street shop has been drumming up better sales compared to his other shop, this winter has put a damper on business overall.
"Slow business is influencing my worldview, but I don't buy into that rah-rah-rah, 'everything is going to get better.' I'm from Flint, Michigan. That makes me a little nervous. People in Madison think that things always get better. I think things could slip back."
Karl Harter, owner of Movin' Shoes, wants the city to "be more proactive" by condemning properties that have sat vacant for years. The city, assures Bruer, is working on it.
"We've been plagued by decades of poor social policy and poor land use," he says. "We didn't get into this overnight and we're not going to get out of it overnight."
As Bruer sees it, to understand where Park Street is headed, you must first know where it's been. In the '60s and '70s, Park Street was "quite the destination," he says. At one time the corridor had four grocery stores, a Kmart, hotels, classic drive-ins and a "host of commercial retail."
In the early '80s, the neighborhood began to sour. The lure of suburbia beckoned, and the south side couldn't compete. Businesses moved to the far east and west sides. And city planning head Mark Olinger says that, until Congress passed a law in 1984, slum landlords realized "huge tax write-offs" by snatching up south-side properties, letting them deteriorate and then dumping them.
Further compounding matters, Bruer says the south side's previously healthy economic mix skewed poorer and poorer as the government continued to concentrate low-income housing there: "This corridor became the dumping ground for the city until the late '80s. The only thing this area has not been asked to absorb is a nuclear dump."
Harter says he's made a "big commitment" to stay on Park Street during the last 30 years: "There was a question of whether to go out west over by the Princeton Club, but I decided not to do that." His shoe shop has occupied five different addresses along Park Street, currently in "what essentially was a crack house" before he razed it and built a brand-new building.
"I think a lot of people are tired of the suburban, exurban growth," says Harter. "People are committed to living downtown."
Rick Flowers, treasurer of the Bram's Addition Neighborhood Association and co-owner of R Place on Park, says the neighborhood's demographics are changing: "Young white kids can afford to buy a house here. We're getting a lot of the Willy Street crowd. We'll be the new Willy Street in 10 years, if we're lucky. Well, that wouldn't be too bad. It would give us some bohemian flavor."