New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid died on February 16 at 43. He was on assignment in Syria when he apparently suffered a fatal asthma attack. The Pulitzer Prize-winner attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he wrote for The Daily Cardinal and Isthmus. The following story, from the October 27, 1989, edition of Isthmus, is a look at Madison's railroad corridors.
When developer Randy Alexander looks at Madison's huge undeveloped rail corridors, he sees exciting opportunities for growth without painful urban sprawl.
Alexander's $30 million office, retail and housing project on the west rail corridor between Park Street and Monona Bay is now nearly half complete.
"We see it as a part of an urban renaissance and a message to people on the periphery that something great is beginning to happen here," he says. "It's something that has the potential to reenergize the area."
But Alexander represents just one of the several competing visions for Madison's ubiquitous rail corridors. Others see the corridors as a golden opportunity for a light-rail transportation system or even an elevated taxi track. Still others urge a series of bike trails and linear parks.
Most of the present debate focuses on three areas encompassing about 30 acres of prime real estate: the corridor where Alexander is building his project, a strip along East Wilson Street from Blair to Brearly streets, and a second section of the same corridor running from Brearly to Marquette Street.
This of course represents a small portion of Madison's expansive network of railroad tracks, most of which are still in use. Nine tracks in all emanate like a web from the central city. Most are still owned by private railroad companies, although the state and more recently the city are buying up sections of track once they are abandoned.
In the late 1960s the corridors -- by which is meant the land on either side of the tracks -- were earmarked by Madison and Dane County planners for future transportation uses. But as more and more railroads were abandoned in the early 1980s, pressure grew to put the corridors to a variety of uses, including development.
Now the debate is coming to a head. With the city on the verge of purchasing a huge chunk of the developable corridors, an array of developers, planners, politicians and neighborhood groups are pushing to have their visions realized. George Austin, the head of the city's Departments of Planning and Development, expects some of the key decisions to be made during the next few years.
"These corridors provide the single most important resource to the downtown in terms of the continued redevelopment and revitalization of the isthmus area," says Austin. "We will realize the potential of the corridors over the next decade and into the year 2000."
Madison's central city is endowed with an unusual number of railroad corridors, due to its location as the state capital and the farsightedness of its early planners and politicians.
According to local historian David Mollenhoff, the city's leaders believed it was necessary to have the railroad connections with the rest of the state in order to stave of attempts from other cities in the 1850s, '60s and '70s to capture the state seal. Meanwhile, the railroad companies were interested in having ready access to the state capital, creating what Mollenhoff calls a "happy convergence of interests."
The first railway into Madison was completed in the spring of 1854, and new tracks were added as the rail traffic boomed. Most of the railroad development was completed by the closing years of the 1800s and established Madison as a wholesale and distribution center large enough to serve farmers throughout the Midwest.
By 1938, Madison was a bustling center for the railroad transportation, with nine lines emanating from the isthmus area. That year, 300,000 rail freight cars passed through Madison, and 43 passenger trains were scheduled into and out of Madison daily. (Today, the number of rail cars moving through Madison each year is less than the number that went through the city during a single month 50 years ago.)
As a result of this explosion of railroad development, Madison's isthmus was criss-crossed with huge undeveloped strips. As early as 1910, Mollenhoff says, planner John Nolen realized this problem and advocated a consolidation and relocation of many of the railroad tracks so that they wouldn't have such a disruptive effect. But his advice went unheeded for half a century.
Since railroad passenger service in Madison was discontinued in spring of 1971, city and county officials have taken an interest in preserving the areas for future transportation planning.
In the late 1960s, the Dane County Regional Planning Commission adopted a policy to prevent the corridors from being sold off in small pieces. The intent of such planning was most likely to assure their continued use for rail-freight transportation.
This is still the primary use of the corridors. Two groups, the Soo and the Chicago & North Western rail companies, own anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths of the lines in the state. The remainder are owned by the state government but leased to two county commissions: the South Central Wisconsin Rail Transit Commission (made up of Dane and Green counties) and the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission (made up of eight counties, including Dane). Under an agreement with the state, these transit commissions handle short-line freight operations on the state-owned tracks.
City planners, however, see the corridor's potential in a different light: development with an option for light rail. Planning director Austin says the city became interested in corridor redevelopment in the early 1980s. In his view, the corridors should incorporate a combination of residential and commercial uses -- as well as preserving a 50-foot swath for continued freight transportation. Among the possibilities: putting in bike paths, a bus network or a light-rail system.
But the development is Austin's priority. "This is a gigantic amount of land in the central city," he says. "Any time you have an opportunity to redevelop 30 acres of land adjacent to your central business district, that is an incredible opportunity for the community."
Austin isn't the only one talking about developing the corridors. A group of local progressives, People for Downtown Development, is advocating "in-filling" the east and west rail corridors as part of an overall strategy to rein in sprawl.
Moreover, a 1983 city planning study focusing on the west rail corridor between Park Street and Lake Monona and the East Wilson corridor between Blair and Brearly Streets recommended a combination of housing, open space and some commercial and community-service development. The west corridor was viewed as a prime location for a research park, due to its proximity to the UW-Madison.
Says Austin: "If you take a look at the things that have occurred in the east rail corridor and what's occurring at the Milwaukee Depot in the West Washington corridor, we're moving along at a steady pace. Not rapid, but steady."
Although city planners think the preservation of a 50-foot corridor around all present tracks is adequate for future needs, County Sup. Roberta Leidner (Dist. 10) and others view the city's efforts with alarm.
"I think the city and the county have different goals," says Leidner, who has served on several committees involved with railway planning. "What multi-county rail-transit commissions have been doing is an attempt to save the rail corridors and rail service. The only time the city has cooperated, it has been lengthy, arduous and extremely costly."
Leidner's view on development is clear-cut: "We are not interested in development; we are interested in saving this rail service. You have no idea what may be the need for corridors in the future. You certainly do know that you can't put together a rail corridor today, not even fir two or three blocks."
Although Leidner would grudgingly accept development that is properly planned and leaves railways open, she is nonetheless bothered by the priorities of the city government. "There hasn't been any outpouring of enthusiasm is very much a concern," she says. "All I've ever heard the city government talk about is development."
Austin acknowledges this conflict, but insists "the city's and county's interests are the same as it relates to preserving the option for a regional transportation network, The city's interests are a little more broad in terms of development adjacent to these corridors, though."
In terms of regional transportation, Leidner and others look to light rail as the most promising option. With the tracks and huge corridors already in place, both city officials interested in development and others involved with preservation urge consideration of this colossal undertaking.
According to mayoral aide Anne Monks, the city may tap existing state funds for transit-system planning. But the cost of actually building a light-rail network may be probative: estimates range from $7 million to $1 million per mile of track.
According to principle cit planner John Urich, "The economic reality is this: UT's going to cost $75 million or better to establish a light-rail service in any of the corridors, which is far beyond the financial capabilities on the city.
Others question the feasibility of such a system. "I need to be convinced that light rail can work," says Ald. David Wallner (Dist. 2). "Show me a city the size of Madison where light rails has worked." Placing buses in the railroad corridors may offer a cheaper and more flexible alternative, Wallner suggests.
Developer Alexander favors a resurrection of regional passenger-train service over municipal light-rail service. "We have a tremendous market for a passenger train to take people to Milwaukee, to the Dells, to Spring Green," he says.
Lewis' idea" a personal rapid transit (PRT) system known as Taxi 2000 that would consist of an elevated tack system towering over the current tracks and running through the existing corridors. The carts on the elevated track would be small personalized vehicles accommodating anywhere from one to six people and offering nonstop service. Lewis says the initial elevated tracks should connect the UW with the downtown area extending out to the Dane County Coliseum, a four- to five-mile tack in all.
"The beauty of Taxi 2000," he says, "is that you could deck over the corridors and create levels above the track." In this way, Lewis says it is possible to construct a "higher livable density" in the central city and inhibit sprawl.
Such a system, says Lewis, will take at least 20 years. The first step is preventing the corridors from being sold off or used in a way that would block the tracks. Development doesn't fit into Lewis' equation.
"If we keep putting up individual building, we negate the opportunity to look at the whole space as a system," he says. "The longer we put off putting anything there, the longer we have to look at new options for the land."
But Lewis' plan, like the light rail, is criticized for being too audacious and too costly. Early estimates put the cost at $5 million for $10 million per mile.
Softening the Line
While transit options are debated, the push is on to increase other forms of access. Ald. Wallner and such neighborhood groups as Common Wealth Development are calling for a system of linear parks incorporating manmade ponds, bike and walk paths and landscaping projects.
"It's doing in the city what state government has done [with corridors] around the state -- that is, recreational purposes and providing green space in the urban environment," says Wallner.
Currently, the city is in the process of purchasing the abandoned two-mile east rail corridor from Blair Street to Marquette Street running loosely along Williamson Street. The Common Council approved the purchase in November 1988, and the deal with the Soo Line is expected to be completed in the early months of 1990. A May 1988 issue paper placed the cost of the corridor and related parcels at about $800,000; city officials aren't saying what the current offer is.
Gus Pappas, a realty estate supervisor with planning and development, says the city hopes to build a bike path and preserve the corridor for the future transportation use. But others see a larger scheme.
Wallner, who sits on the city's transportation commission, envisions a bike path along the corridor that would link up John Nolen bike path in the west and the Olbrich bike trail in the east. Along with this would be a "long, skinny" landscaped park incorporating a walkway, small public gardens near the bike trails and picnic space throughout. Wallner says this would "soften the line between all the industrial stuff on East Washington and the residential neighborhoods."
Although Wallner doesn't have any cost estimates for such a project, he thinks it could be completed three years after the purchase is finalized. In the meantime, he opposes development: "There is plenty of other land for commercial development." Common Wealth, citing a deficiency of park space in the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood, is backing a plan completed last year in conjunction with the UW's Department of Landscape Architecture. The plan is similar to Wallner's but looks to the state to foot some of the bill.
Not everyone is thrilled with the linear park idea, however. "I think it's crazy," says developer Alexander. "The number-one reality is, who is going to pay for the park? The taxpayers are going to pay for the park."
Alexander blasts Common Wealth for talking what he sees as a narrow, self-interested approach. "It's not a Marquette neighborhood issue," he insists. "I'm not sure given all the perils the downtown faces that the linear park is the best thing for the city. Transportation needs are on everyone's mind these days, the need for housing, to mix it with business and for some parking. There's a lot of competing uses for that rail corridor."
Do The Right Thing
Alexander says much of his philosophy regarding the corridor stems from James Graaskamp, the late UW professor and renowned real estate authority. In a 1983 study, Graaskamp urged the city to purchase the East Wilson and West Washington rail corridors to control the direction development there takes.
Graaskamp said the land could be acquired cheaply and later parceled out to firms interested in developing the area. Alexander's development will occupy about 12.5 acres, incorporating 96 housing units, 35,000 square feet of office space and more than 1,125 parking spaces.
The first two projects -- the $3.4 million development of the Wiedenleck Warehouse in 57 upscale apartments and the construction of 39 additional housing units near the warehouse and the Milwaukee Depot -- have been completed. And work is under way to redevelop the Milwaukee Depot into retail and office space. Alexander is now looking to build 296,000 feet of retail and office space to capitalize on the location between downtown and the UW. He expects completion in 36 months.
"We're developing more space there than has been developed in the past six to seven years total downtown," Alexander says, adding that, "We don't do projects that aren"t the right thing to do. It's not a matter of not understanding what you and I want, but what the community wants." The process through which Alexander obtained the land was arduous. Because the corridor is still being used for short-line freight, he had to negotiate a deal with the rail-transit commission to share the depot and then leave a 50-foot corridor free. He later donated another 50 feet around the corridor to the city for future transportation purposes in order to obtain a tax incremental financing district for the area. In all, he had to give up 1.75 acres for use in the 12.5-acre plot.
Alexander would like to see similar development in the corridor near Law Park. The area, he says, is ripe for retail and housing projects, especially if plans proceed for a marina and boathouse there. But he stresses that the ultimate decision on such matters is out of any one person's hands.
"Demographics and the general public will dictate whether we have light rail, highways, bike paths or whatever in those corridors," he says. "The public will dictate whether any of that happens."