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July 18, 1997: Big Ideas for Madison
As Monona Terrace opens and the Kohl Center nears completion, Melanie Conklin pops the question: What other major projects should the city take on?
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Credit:Brian Strassburg

With the cutting this weekend of the ribbon across the entryway to the new Monona Terrace convention center, it's worth asking: Has Madison finally shed its image as the Little City That Can't?

This, remember, is the same town where "analysis paralysis" once reigned.

"For all of its politically correct liberalism, Madison can be a remarkably conservative town," asserted Wisconsin State Journal editor Tom Still five years ago in an article for Wisconsin Interest. "Not conservative in the classic ideological sense - but conservative in taking risks, and conservative in resisting physical change." He said Madison has a "historical inability to put two bricks together without a dozen public hearings, an environmental-impact statement or two, and the obligatory referendum. If ever a city seemed determined to choke on its own democratic tongue, it is Madison."

Then again, in the same essay, Still said the chances that Madison would actually build Monona Terrace, then just the latest in a series of proposed convention facilities, were even less likely than the prospect of the UW Badgers going to the Rose Bowl.

Now that the convention facility has become a reality, the Kohl Center basketball arena is rising from the ground, a new Expo Hall is open on the Dane County Coliseum grounds, and the UW campus has several new buildings, such proclamations have been pretty thoroughly repudiated. Madison has unleashed the civic energy, intergovernmental cooperation and corporate generosity needed to make big things happen.

And that prompts us to wonder: What other big ideas could benefit from the same rallying enthusiasm?

In researching this question, one obstacle became clear. Among the elected officials and civic leaders who should be the vanguard of Madison's vision, there were few big ideas. Everyone could identify problems, but many drew a blank when pressed to suggest solutions. Others were afraid to discuss projects for fear of being labeled big spenders. (As if the convention center came cheap!)

The same held true in last spring's elections. There was no shortage of commentary on how taxes are too high or crime too prevalent. But hardly anyone offered anything in the way of large, visionary ideas.

This paucity of imagination, says Madison historian and author David Mollenhoff, is a sad sign of the times.

"I think it's one of the unfortunate deficiencies of modern life," he says. "We tend to be problem-oriented rather than vision-centered. Frankly, we tend to focus on the curb-and-gutter things and ignore the big vision at our peril."

But Madison and its current leaders, Mollenhoff continues, are hardly unique in this regard: "People who have the ability to think big thoughts and dream big dreams are always rare. People who succeed in selling their ideas to Madison historically are people who have worked very long and very hard."

Currently, Mollenhoff and Mary Jane Hamilton are co-writing a book on the vision it took to make Monona Terrace a reality. He says Madison's strong suit is its history of "frenzied civic involvement." People here not only discuss dollars and cents, but also such issues as style, beauty and design.

"There was always the question of Madison being special, beautiful and cerebral," he says. "The prevalent feelings of civic duty came in conjunction with the need to keep it beautiful. It drove people out of their easy chair."

That said, here's a list of some big, visionary ideas that Madison may want to pursue. With luck, some of these ideas will make abandoning that easy chair worthwhile.

Commuter or light rail

One idea that has a lot of people aboard who you'd never expect to find on the same track is rail. Let's face it: Riding a train is far more romantic than other forms of mass transit. Whether it's light rail (which is basically faster, quieter and more expensive) or commuter rail (which could utilize existing tracks), the idea has backing from the likes of Dick Wagner, Jonathan Barry, Mike Blaska, Rodney Kreunen and Rob Kennedy.

Developer Bob Blettner has even offered to donate $5 million worth of land out by his Corporate Center for a station with a parking lot - on the condition that rail be under construction within five years. "With more buildings going up downtown, traffic is getting bottled up on places like Doty Street," warns Blettner. "This community is in desperate need of getting rail."

The top choice for the first line would be from Mazomanie through the isthmus and eventually out to Sun Prairie. A second line might go from Stoughton to DeForest, passing through Madison's east side.

Yes, rail would cost a pretty penny, but backers tout benefits beyond improving transportation and reducing pollution. Supv. Scott McDonell envisions stops surrounded by dense housing with grocery stores or dry cleaners nearby so that more people can get by without cars. If done right, says McDonell, rail could be key in halting sprawl: "We can proactively attract people to develop along corridors rather than a reactive policy of just telling people where they can't go."

Swimming pool

It's a steamy summer day. The lakes are filled with algae and possibly even lard balls. So where do you go to swim if you don't happen to have access to a local private pool? If you live in Mount Horeb, Sun Prairie or Verona, you can dive into the public swimming pool. In Madison? Tough luck.

A referendum to build a pool at Olin-Turville was defeated a few years back, but the main sticking point was the site, not the idea of public pools. And plans to build a pool in the new Warner Park community center are on hold, although Mayor Sue Bauman dreams of having centers throughout the city equipped with public pools - if only they didn't cost so darn much.

But it takes someone willing to dream - and worry about cost later - to take the plunge. Last year, former UW swim coach Jack Pettinger floated the idea of putting a pool at Breese Stevens Field on East Washington Avenue. Pettinger, quoted in The Capital Times, noted that the site is on a bus line, near a bike path and already has locker rooms. And, thinking big, Pettinger didn't just suggest one pool but two - one for recreation, including slides and sun-bathing islands, and one for team competition. He said there could also be an in-line skating rink, sand volleyball courts and bubble tops to make the facility usable year-round.

Bill Graham, who spearheaded the Olin-Turville pool drive, loves the idea. Sure, there is a $5 million price tag. But big ideas rarely come cheap.

Marinas on the lakes

One challenge for the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center will be living up to the third word in its name. And one thing that could go a long way toward making this area nicer for us local folks is the proposed Law Park boathouse marina - complete with water-sports rental, docks and a terrace where you can get a beer and burger. It's an idea based on Taliesin architect Wesley Peters' vision for Monona Basin, which former Mayor Paul Soglin last year had the foresight to turn into draft plans.

Stored in the Parks Division office are colored renderings of a Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse for Law Park, a shelter and cafe in the new addition to Olin-Turville (Soglin Park?), and a path along the John Nolen causeway between the two, complete with a series of scenic lookouts. It's an idea that First Settlement neighbors backed in their recent planning process. And boaters in Madison have long advocated not only for a marina on Lake Monona, but one on Lake Mendota as well - an idea first promoted in the 1930s, before Monona Terrace was even a glimmer in Frank Lloyd Wright's eye.

Green quilt of parks

Although County Supv. John Hendrick failed in his bid for Madison mayor, he did succeed in advancing one of the spring election's few visionary ideas: a citywide network of small neighborhood parks linked by linear trails or paths. A "green quilt," he dubbed it. With just some additional linkage, a kid living on Willy Street could hop on her bike and take a path all the way out to west-side Elver Park, or farther, without ever riding on a busy street.

"We can't afford to buy a lot of parkland," notes Hendrick. "But we can stitch them together to give all neighborhoods access." Current examples of this ethic include additions to the E-Way and the Capitol City bike trail that goes by Olbrich Park and connects with the Yahara Greenway, Tenney Park and down to Olin-Turville. On the other side of town, Elver and Badger parks are being linked with Ice Age Trail purchases. And Hendrick says the city should be eyeing land buys to link Warner Park through the community gardens to Cherokee Marsh and Gov. Nelson State Park.

"The difference between livable cities and those that are not can almost be measured by whether teenagers can go from area to area independently and safely without their parents," asserts Hendrick. "It's a bellwether for quality of life." Another potential linkage he suggests would be from Pheasant Branch through Six Mile Creek and Token Creek into the town of Burke.

A related idea being crafted with the help of Alds. Barb Vedder and Judy Olson is to develop in-fill housing and recreational space along the Yahara River through the isthmus - adding a foot path on one side of the river, a bike path on the other. Mollenhoff dreams of yet another piece for the quilt: turning the underdeveloped area between Williamson and East Washington near the Madison Metro bus barns into a park. "Go down there and look sometime," he suggests. "There's a big, grassy open space. I've long felt it ought to be looked at as a future Central Park."

Grand gateways

East Washington Avenue is a major entryway to Madison, especially for people arriving from the airport, but it also is a visually unappealing stretch of road. As former east-side Ald. Dave Wallner once put it, "This should be the Champs Ãlysées of Madison, but instead it looks like shit."

Former County Executive Rick Phelps says if he could get one idea ingrained in the regional psyche, it would be that how we perceive our community is based on what we view from the road. He says Dane County needs to put in place a design strategy that creates grand and beautiful entrances, or gateways, not only to Madison but to places like Black Earth or Sun Prairie to illustrate the separate nature of each community.

Phelps suggests that "less-than-desirable prefab buildings" be masked with shrubs, greenery and landscaping. "This idea can be dismissed as garden clubs," he says, "but if people experience schlock, that's what they expect. If they experience beauty, that's the expectation."

Starter homes and beyond

A friend who recently bought his first home commented that he's spent more time mulling the purchase of a pair of jeans than he did deciding to make an offer on his home. That's because houses under or around $100,000 are a rare commodity in Madison. There've been numerous calls for developing more starter homes, but the cost of land and new construction quickly puts the price out of reach for low- or even moderate-income families. Mortgage lender Jan Silvers, a former real estate agent, believes there's another solution: helping people move out of starter homes and into second-time homes.

"What's happening in Madison is that we're losing our stock of starter homes because people can't afford that next step up," says Silvers. "So instead they're putting additions on the houses to give them more square footage, which in turn creates a home that is no longer starter-home priced. We shouldn't tell people not to build, but we can help them find other options."

A number of programs, from Affords to WHEDA, help people with that first purchase, but Silvers would like to see one that helps people make the second jump at a time when home prices are rising faster than most incomes.

Another idea she has to preserve the starter-home stock would be to set aside a pot of city money to lend small-home owners to fix up a place for the purpose of selling. The amount spent on maintenance (not additions) could be recaptured and repaid upon sale - thus keeping a constant fund available. In the housing industry Silvers guesses this would "make Madison a place people point to and say, 'Look what they did.'"

Teen center

The scene for teens in Madison has been dealt a blow by the loss of live-music venues like the Paramount and Club De Wash that once hosted all-ages shows. And the New Loft - a teen hangout run by Dane County Youth Connection - is threatened by the school district pulling out of the building on Fairchild Street that the two entities shared.

That worries Youth Connection's Steve Levine: "I'm a staunch believer that if you want kids to be safe, you need to have places for them to recreate." He says a pool would certainly help "cool kids off and give them something to do," but he also hears a lot of kids pine for an outdoor skateboard facility, which other cities have in parks.

One idea is for the city to use some of the space vacated by the school district for an expanded teen center with room to bring in bands. Maybe this would give State Street's purple-haired kids, who some people are fond of complaining about, a different place to hang than Concrete Park.

Besides recreation, Levine has a plan to find jobs for kids who live in rural areas where there isn't much work available. He imagines a summer Teen Work Bus, which would bring youths into Madison where jobs bagging groceries or flipping burgers are more plentiful.

A downtown village

One name that pops up often in response to inquiries about local visionaries is Kenton Peters. This architect and developer, who designed a linear MATC campus for the lakeshore and later proposed a convention center on the lake where Frank Lloyd Wright had wanted a civic center, hasn't stopped hatching plans.

Chief among them is Peters' dream of showcasing the ideas of New Urbanism - with its pedestrian-scale, mixed-use development - in Madison's downtown. Indeed, he thinks the Middleton Hills development conceived by the late Marshall Erdman is flawed, perhaps fatally, by the fact that it is too far outside the city. "Madison's east and west sides," booms Peters, "might as well be Peoria or Omaha."

Peters won't reveal the location of his dream project, saying the land is picked out but not acquired. "A downtown village will be a great place to live," he attests, explaining that his project will include diverse housing in three-to-four-story buildings with contained parking. Ground levels could open onto courtyards, so families with children could live downtown and still have a place where kids could play. There would also be ground-level retail, so people could walk downstairs and get an ice-cream cone or pick up dry-cleaning.

Most of all, the project affirms the value of living in an urban center. Says Peters, "I'm trying to get out of being a visionary and become a do-inary."

Repairing the safety net

The opening of Monona Terrace isn't likely to be widely celebrated by residents of the city's homeless shelters, or by parents worrying about impending welfare cuts. Hasan Mohr, who sees many of the county's poorest residents come through his doors at the Hospitality House drop-in shelter near Grace Episcopal Church, can tick off a list of things that would improve these people's lives: more affordable housing, eviction prevention programs, more homeless shelter space for families on the waiting list for the Salvation Army's shelter.

These days, much of Mohr's attention is being spent addressing the repercussions of W-2. "There's that dreaded S-word: sanctions," he says. "There's no plan in place to provide a safety net. I'm seeing a lot of families who relied on $440 a month that could at least pay the rent. When they go from that to zero, they end up in a church basement."

Given that government is abdicating responsibility, Mohr would like to see the community pick up the ball by designing a grassroots safety net. He envisions the involvement of nonprofits, religious groups, students, labor unions and good corporate citizens. For example, he says, Madison Gas & Electric could help families facing utility cut-off. And he argues that this unified approach will save money in the long run, keeping people out of shelters, emergency rooms and jails.

"There's the old adage," says Mohr, "nothing is more wasteful than poverty."

Metro government

City planning director George Austin articulates a vision so sweeping it almost can't fit on this page. Taking the large view, he argues that what Madison and Dane County most need is to stop fighting over such issues as land use and come up with a unified, regional approach.

"If we think seriously about the whole metropolitan area as the emphasis, we will fare better than those who continue to emphasize competition between government units," says Austin. "Fragmentation hurts us." By uniting, he says, the area would also enhance its ability to do business in the global marketplace.

Another local visionary, the UW's Phil Lewis, has described Madison as being at the center of a regional triangle formed by Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago - an area that could have tremendous bargaining power in such markets. And Madison's stature worldwide will also get a boost from Frank Lloyd Wright's international reputation.

Austin glows like a proud parent when discussing Monona Terrace. But he says the facility should be an impetus for rallying around other less tangible and more complex issues, such as reducing the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

"Clearly, Monona Terrace - while it is bricks and mortar, and some of our most important future issues aren't that - demonstrates that people can come together to do a project," says Austin. "It should have some important lessons about processes we can employ to deal with the provision of social services, day care, and keeping the schools at high quality." And realizing this larger vision, he believes, is a function of leadership: "It takes leaders who are willing to take some risks, even when they know it will involve controversy."

After all, if the Little City That Can't can overcome analysis paralysis and open a world-class convention center, what else might we be able to get done?

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