When Ed Blume saw Arlington Height's downtown area, he realized that Madison had some work to do if it hoped a high-speed rail station could be an impetus for development.
"I guess I was thinking we'll just plop the station down some where and let development happen around it," says Blume, a representative with RENEW Wisconsin, which organized a field trip Wednesday to the Chicago suburb. "Well that's probably not the best way to do urban planning."
"You have to have a vision," he says. "And if you want it to work really well, you've got to lay that vision out. And then you've got to look for developers who want to fulfill that vision."
But Blume was inspired by what he saw in Arlington Heights, which has a downtown station on Metra's Harvard commuter line. And he thinks Madison could learn a lot from the community. The city is looking for examples on how to develop its own train station as it prepares for a high-speed rail link from Chicago.
The Arlington Heights downtown area is a new urbanist development, with lots of shops, offices and retail surrounding the train station. It's high-density neighborhoods constructed of red brick.
"If the development around a [Madison] train station could mirror what they have done, it would be a remarkable success," he says. But not every community on the Chicago commuter line has made a train station work for them. "In other locations where the train stopped all you would see is a field of cars in this gigantic parking lot," he says. Like Dutch Mill park and ride, only 10 times bigger."
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's chief of staff Janet Piraino also made the trip, but she did not return calls for comment.
Caryl Terrell, an activist with the Sierra Club, says she was impressed by how Arlington Heights used the station to transform its downtown. One block near the station used to be a car lot. The city put in an underground garage and built shops, offices and housing on top of it.
"They came up with a vision of what they wanted. It's impressive as all get out to see it built," she says. "They have been able to increase the density and it makes them afford things they would never have been able to attract. They have a multi-screen movie complex."
She says the city also convinced a downtown grocery store that was contemplating moving to stay. It rebuilt the store at the same location and is always busy, she adds. "They convinced them there would be all these people living in the area."
Blume says that one thing the group that made the trip agreed on: a high-speed rail station needs to be in the center city. There has been debate over where to put the station, with several places proposed, including the airport and First Street.
"The airport is not the place for a primary train stop. No development will occur around that," he says. "They're not going to put a 10 story building at the airport -- a plane will crash into it. Will people bike out to the airport? Probably not."