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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Light Rain
The Daily
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Bus depot, land bridge to Lake Monona among ideas for Madison's south isthmus
A proposal by Kenton Peters would cover a portion of John Nolen Drive with an esplanade down to Lake Monona.
Credit:Joe Tarr

Kenton Peters admits that he's been a bit of "a pest."

The esteemed Madison architect has been following the process for the South Capitol Transit Oriented Development Study and decided to push a proposal he first made two decades ago, to replace a section of John Nolen Drive east of Monona Terrace with a grand park and esplanade connecting the public to Lake Monona.

Peters idea -- which he estimates would cost about $35 million and he says would be paid for by the increase to the property tax base and revenue from 400 parking spaces his proposal includes -- isn't part of the city's official planning process, which is looking at ways to improve transit, bike and pedestrian options, fix some messy intersections, and provide better access to Lake Monona. But he's been coming to public meetings, like one held at Monona Terrace on Thursday night, lugging his illustrations and an architectural model, hoping to get people to finally buy into it.

"I've asked why are you ignoring this solution?" Peters asks Thursday night. "I've shown this to five mayors and they all loved it," he adds, noting that although many people love the idea, the city has been reluctant to support it. But Peters hopes his vision will finally gain traction.

His plan would allow people to walk from the Capitol Square area right down to Lake Monona by creating a grand public walkway with boat docks, restaurants, gardens and an ice rink. Peters says it wouldn't require any of the lake to be filled in. And he notes that the downtown plan calls for the city to embrace the lakes. "Unless you can touch the lake... you can't embrace it."

"I sense there's a new downtown emerging in the [south isthmus]," Peters says. "There's a sense that things are changing."

The South Capitol Planning Committee held the public meeting to get feedback on its own ideas, but allowed Peters to set up his display there too. The format was open house, with people walking around to several easels with renderings and city staff and consultants talking one-on-one about the ideas. The city's ideas might be less ambitious than Peters' vision. "The committee has been asked to consider ideas less grand than his -- less expensive," says David Trowbridge, a city planner.

Essentially, the committee is looking at ways to improve bike and pedestrian access through the neighborhood and to Lake Monona. Fred Schwartz, with the design consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates, which is helping the city with the study, said the committee is looking at prioritizing bicyclists and pedestrians over cars. "In some ways, we're pushing the envelope, giving those modes of transportation more priority," he says.

One area of study is the often treacherous intersection of John Nolen Drive with East Wilson, Blair and Williamson streets. The study is suggesting a solution could be to make East Wilson a cul-de-sac to cars, but allowing bikes and pedestrians to cross Blair Street and John Nolen there. South Hancock Street would also be extended to John Nolen, providing another way for cars to move east and west.

But some are leery of this solution. "I don't think it actually addresses biking and pedestrian safety issues," says former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway. She notes that bikes would still be traveling in several different directions and be forced to "cross paths" into each other. She also worried that because cars traveling on Blair and John Nolen would no longer have to worry about car drivers crossing from East Wilson, they would increase speed. "You're giving Blair and John Nolen traffic permission to go faster because you're removing a conflict point," she says.

And Rhodes-Conway adds that closing off Wilson Street would likely mean cars would use more side streets: "You can't predict where people are going to go and you have to give them a place to go."

Ald. Marsha Rummel -- whose district includes the intersection -- isn't sold on the idea either. "I started out hating it," she says. But she adds, "I'm glad we've had this concentrated planning effort on this intersection."

The committee is also playing with ideas for a bridge across John Nolen Drive east of Monona Terrace (much smaller than what Peters is proposing), and a better bike and pedestrian crossing over John Nolen Drive at Broom Street.

One idea that many people are excited about is a proposal for an inter-city bus depot at 114 N. Bedford St., near the intersection of West Washington, an area recommended by a Kimley-Horn last fall.

The Milwaukee-based Boldt Company is proposing an eight-to-10 story apartment building there with 125 units. On the ground floor, it's proposing a bus depot, with loading docks for five buses. The bus depot idea works well because the developers can't dig deep into the ground -- there's a high-voltage power line underneath and the water table is high. "It's not a site to dig under" for underground parking, says Boldt's James Kleinfeldt.

If all goes well, the developers would submit plans in the summer, with construction slated to begin either in November or March 2015.

The plans are good news to Royce Williams, who has long advocated for a new bus depot. A board member with Madison Area Bus Advocates, Williams frequently travels by bus to visit relatives and friends and has snapped photos of other cities' bus depots -- some of which were featured on the committee's easels.

He thinks it doesn't make any sense that much smaller cities have much nicer bus stations. "We should be doing at least as good," Williams says.

"We've got six bus providers and about 35 buses a day," Williams continues. "Right now, you have to wait out on University Avenue with no shelter. Fortunately, it's getting warmer."

But Williams wonders if bus companies will use a station and pay rent. Trowbridge admits this is an issue. "We can't make them use it," he says. The bus companies now drop off and pick up customers on public streets, which is causing some problems. That's the industry trend, but the city might be able to restrict how they use streets.

The South Capitol Planning Committee is scheduled to meet next on April 10 and decide what final recommendations to make to the Common Council, which will then have to decide whether to act on them.

Peters hopes the city goes big. He says much of the planning process is focusing on moving through the area: "My concern is people are not looking at the substance -- what does downtown want to be?"

Peters' answer is it wants to be "busy," with people living, working and playing there.

Trowbridge says it would be up to the council to decide whether Peters' idea has any merit.

"It didn't make sense to flesh that out because he's already done that," says Trowbridge. "It's certainly on the table if council wants to consider it."

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