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Friday, August 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
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OPINION

Unlock the Madison east rail corridor
Here's a project that really could be a boon to city

Marc Eisen
Marc Eisen
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The James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate can be found on the fourth floor of the UW-Madison School of Business building. To the right of the entrance is a montage of drawings of the legendary professor, who died in 1988, interspersed with several rubrics that have guided generations of real estate developers, appraisers and analysts.

Among them is a message that resonates for Madison today: "The successful real estate deal is nothing more than a series of crises tied together by a critical path."

Mired in a rough patch of downtown redevelopment, City Hall has had a hard time managing these crises. In recent years, major development proposals - Union Corners, Avenue 800, the Fiore library plan have collapsed after exhaustive negotiations.

But even more troubling is Madison's loss of that "critical path" in guiding the central city redevelopment. That path, I would suggest, should lead to the largely vacant east rail corridor, almost 100 acres and hands down the best spot to create the jobs that should be at the heart of a serious downtown strategy.

Yes, job creation. Not park planning in the rail corridor. Not subsidizing a public plaza for a hotelier in a historic district. Not a stand-alone library renovation that doesn't spur private investment.

Madison should unlock the economic potential of the east corridor, where nothing ever seems to get done, despite years - no, decades - of wheel-spinning.

Jim Graaskamp, known at "The Chief" to his fiercely loyal students, counseled investment giants like Salomon Brothers and Prudential Insurance. But in the politicized world of Madison development, Graaskamp was often the insurgent ripping into major development plans, frequently as a comrade of Phil Ball, the Brenda Konkel of his day.

A finance man by training, Graaskamp pioneered a holistic vision of real estate development that recognized neighborhood and environmental concerns. That's what brought me to the Graaskamp Center, to look at a forgotten study he did of the east and west rail corridors.

The report - more than 400 pages, with a block-by-block breakdown (often with individual building analysis) and extensive financial scenarios for redevelopment - was presented to the city almost exactly 27 years ago, on May 6, 1983.

The rail corridors are "an exceptional opportunity for the revitalization of the isthmus and integration of the Marquette and Brittingham neighborhoods into the downtown Madison environment," Graaskamp wrote.

The west corridor, thanks to a series of Randy Alexander projects, including City Station and the Wiedenbeck Warehouse Apartments, long ago built up along the lines envisioned by Graaskamp.

But the east corridor … well, it's stunning how little has been accomplished. Among other things, the city failed to act on Graaskamp's bold proposal to create and finance (through revenue bonds or federal grants) a community land bank to buy the corridors from the rail lines for development.

Decades later, the city is gingerly floating the idea of having the Community Development Authority buy the Union Corners tract. But Graaskamp, in weighing three options in land banking, cautioned against a city-agency purchase, warning of inflated costs.

Instead, Graaskamp favored a private-public land bank that left majority control with the private sector. It never happened. And that is par for the course on the east corridor.

How can the city get things going? Here are some suggestions:

  • Revisit the land bank idea. MGE, as the largest landowner in the corridor, should take the lead.
  • Envision the empty rail corridor as an extension of the Capitol Square, not a province of the Marquette neighborhood.
  • Revive Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's east-side trolley plan to connect the rail corridor to the Square.
  • Reconceive the Blair Street interchange. What a disaster! The unsafe jumble of intersecting streets (Willy and Wilson), bike paths and train tracks brutally walls off the downtown from the east side.
  • Recognize that the six lanes of John Nolen Drive cripple isthmus development by blocking the Capitol Square from Lake Monona and Law Park. (Psst! This connection is more critical to the city's future than an Edgewater public plaza overlooking Lake Mendota.)
  • Take a serious look at the creative ideas offered by Kenton Peters, Doug Kozel and the JJR landscape group, and the sadly abandoned plan to build the Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse on Lake Monona.
  • For inspiration, look to the wildly successful Millennium Park that Chicago built on top of a massive (and hidden) parking garage. This lakefront site was once an urban black hole - a railroad switching yard.

In the end, though, we all need a reality check. The golden era of public employment has ended in downtown Madison. Our shared prosperity now rests with business expansion and economic growth.

The east rail corridor, just as in Jim Graaskamp's day, remains ripe with potential.

Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.

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