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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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Sense of place, community building in Madison are topics of Mayor's Neighborhood Conference
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More than 250 neighborhood leaders gathered Saturday at Monona Terrace.
Credit:Nora G. Hertel

A five-by-five-foot map of Madison and surrounding areas occupied the center of the conference room, and in front of it, keynote speaker Fred Kent opened up the conversation to participants of the Mayor's Neighborhood Conference. Mayor Paul Soglin engaged with the crowd, occasionally flipping through the pages of a frequently referenced book, City: Rediscovering the Center.

More than 250 neighborhood leaders gathered Saturday at Monona Terrace. In the past, the conference drew mainly neighborhood association board members and executives, but this year the crowd swelled to include unaffiliated neighbors and representatives from schools, nonprofits and local government, Jules Stroick, a neighborhood planner for the city, said in an interview. Mayor Soglin added in an interview that the attendance "went beyond the usual suspects" to include representatives from the neighborhoods along the outer edges of the city.

Stroick attributes the large attendance to the theme of the event: placemaking, which involves building community and developing a sense of place in pockets around Madison. Kent champions this concept of placemaking as the president of the Project for Public Spaces and on community building tours around the world. A big part of Kent's job in Madison was to identify what he thinks the city does well and not so well and how it can improve.

Soglin initiated the first neighborhood conference in 1996. Stroick says these gatherings are a good place for local leaders to network, build partnerships, expand their expertise and learn about other resources. "Who knows better about what the city should become and be?" asked Stroick, suggesting that neighborhood leaders are the answer.

Kent began the day by declaring the event "a gathering of the zealous nuts of Madison," and adding, "you have to have zealous nuts to make a great city." His philosophy discourages against top-down development.

While singing the praises of State Street, Kent offered many suggestions for improvement. He returned often to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which he views as a "dead building" with too many windows that fails to "energize the street." The museum, located at the intersection of State, North Henry, and West Johnson Streets, is part of the Overture Center. Kent's concept of placemaking prioritizes function over design. The museum also made it onto the list of list of least favorite places in Madison, the result of an unscientific online survey conducted prior to the conference.

Other least favorite places included Philosopher's Grove at the top of State Street, the non-descript entrances to Vilas Park, the Lucky Building on University, the Target at Hilldale, all of West Towne Mall, Eastmoreland Park, Garver Feed Mill (the deteriorating building behind Olbrich Botanical Gardens), among a few others. The new ATC lines along the Beltline received three of 23 submissions in the "least favorite" category. City parks featured prominently in the list of favorite places. The Meadowood Park and Neighborhood Center got five mentions out of the 25 submissions. Henry Vilas Zoo, Monona Terrace, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and Jenifer Street Market also made the list.

p>Kent continued the favorite/least favorite exercise in his first breakout session on "Neighborhood Placemaking: Principles to Action," when he had participants place stickers on the large map of Madison. Red dots indicated a least favorite place, green a favorite, and yellow suggested the area needs improvement.

Kent toured the entire city before the conference. By his assessment, the two anchors of State Street -- the UW Library Mall and Capitol Square -- underperformed. The Square, he said, is functioning at twenty percent of its potential and is "not fully alive." And the Library Mall could benefit from tables and chairs to encourage congregation, though Memorial Library, another "dead building," poses a visual challenge, he added.

Kent also suggested promoting businesses on State Street with perpendicular signs that would extend from the buildings over the sidewalk. Better signage promotes destination spots, he said.

But he opposes sign boards: "You can't read them very well, and they're kind of awful."

Soglin, of course, has been waging a campaign against sign boards of late.

In the morning break-out session, a few of the several dozen participants raised questions about engaging people on Madison's waterfront, making more functional State Street seating, and developing International Lane, the main gateway to the airport. Justice Castaneda, an intern in the mayor's office, raised the issue of the "concentrated pockets of poverty" around Madison.

Castaneda is currently conducting research on the city of Madison for the mayor and for his master's work in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a later interview, Castaneda said that he agrees with Kent's model of creating vibrant public spaces that function for the community, rather than just look good. But he cited the Owl Creek development on the southeast side of the city, as a place that needs additional efforts besides placemaking development.

"Why is it that we have these concentrations of poverty?," Castaneda asked. He suggests examining zoning history and other factors that marginalize low-income populations in Madison. These neighborhoods have high turnover rates, said Castaneda, so stabilizing those communities must be part of any placemaking effort.

Castaneda says these efforts are important to the mayor as well to, "create a community [for everyone], not just a community for some people."

Soglin agreed that the city has additional work beyond placemaking. "[We have] other things to do on other tracks... educational and job development tracks," said Soglin, echoing his opening comments of the day when he spoke about making a commitment to developing economic strength.

At the end of the day, Soglin considered the event a "smashing success," citing the enthusiasm of neighborhood activists: "If anything, there's an attitude of 'wow, let's get to work on that tomorrow.'"

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