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Will major development change the character of State Street?
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Credit:Carolyn Fath

Max Grinnell fell in love for the first time on State Street. Not with any particular person, but with the urban setting in all its messy beauty.

"It was an exciting place to be. The reason I was down here so much was that my father operated a film society on campus and showed a lot of movies at Vilas Hall," Grinnell remembers. "I was down here, putting up posters, watching people, looking into the storefronts."

Grinnell has since moved on, falling in love with other cities, like Boston and Chicago. He splits his time teaching and writing about urban design, and he blogs under the moniker The Urbanologist. But on a trip to his hometown last weekend, he found that State Street retained much of the urban charm he fell in love with as a kid.

"I'm impressed by the [bus] kiosks and the streetscapes," he says. "There's been a conscious effort to make these more comfortable, interesting spaces.... It is truly egalitarian. There are benches if you are homeless and want to spend time. But also if you want to sit outside and eat [street food], you can. It's welcoming to all different groups."

State Street is Madison's signature urban street, the place every visitor ends up wandering down at some point. It's where undergrads talk politics or art over coffee or booze, where UW alumni come to reminisce. But it is not a street frozen in time. It continues to evolve, and for the first time since Overture Center opened in 2004, the street is seeing major development. Will it be good for the street?

"That's the key question: What is State Street and what do we want it to be going forward?" says Jason Tish, executive director of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. "State Street is a success, but it's a delicately balanced success story."

What is it?

In describing State Street, people often compare it to streets in other cities.

For some, it's a Midwest Bourbon or Beale Street, the New Orleans and Memphis historic entertainment districts that draw people from around the world to hear music and drink copious amounts of alcohol. Others compare it to iconic college-town strips like Pearl Street in Boulder, Sixth Street in Austin, or Ithaca Commons near Cornell. For others, it's an old-fashioned Main Street commercial area.

"At two different ends, it is the gateway to the Capitol and the university," says Ald. Scott Resnick, who represents a section of the street. "I honestly believe that as you cross over different portions of State Street you can actually see that transition."

Dick Wagner, chairman of the Urban Design Commission, is more philosophical, saying it's a place where interaction between people is "encouraged and allowed."

"In that sense, its character is very different than the Capitol Square. The Square is more of a stage, and it works well as that."

Mayor Paul Soglin, who has helped define the street in recent decades, says it doesn't have a single identity.

"The way the space is designed, at different times of day, different days of the week, different times of the year, it's a different street," he says. "It's partially why USA Today said we're the number-one city for college football in the country. If it wasn't for State Street, we wouldn't have one of the best farmers' markets in the country. Then there's Maxwell Street Days and the collection of people it brings. And on Friday, Saturday night, it's a completely different place."

A dying State Street

Soglin remembers what State Street looked like in the early '70s.

"It was a continual stream of automobiles," he says. "There was parking on both sides and one lane of traffic. Not only was there congestion brought on by rush hour, but you had a lot of cruising taking place."

It might have been a busy place for cars, he says, but not much else. "State Street was dying. The campus end was doing all right. But once you got past Johnson Street, there were a lot of serious problems. And a growing number of empty storefronts, going through the 100 block and then around the Square."

"Automobile traffic didn't work so well," says Wagner. "The sidewalks weren't so wide, and there wasn't any outdoor cafe activity. It was more of a corridor than a place."

Sandi Torkildson, who opened A Room of One's Own bookstore off the street 38 years ago, remembers it a little differently. "It was a pretty bustling street."

She says it felt crowded because the sidewalks were narrower and there was a lot of car traffic. She also recalls how "the kids during the summer would race their muscle cars around the Square, and a lot of people didn't like that."

Soglin credits the late John Urich, a city planner from 1965 until 1996, with having the vision to turn the street into a mostly pedestrian mall.

"He was deeply concerned about the downtown," Soglin says. "He didn't want Madison to become like Washington, D.C., which was a government town that closed up at 6 p.m."

But, he says, Urich recognized that downtowns couldn't compete with suburban malls "on their terms. Downtowns had to reinvent themselves. They were no longer going to be the home of major department stores, but would have a boutique, intimate feel to them."

After being elected mayor in 1973, Soglin pushed to make Urich's vision a reality, and the Common Council approved it in 1974. Construction lasted seven years and was finally completed in 1982.

The "pedestrian mall" concept was part of a national trend that began in the late '50s and stretched into the '70s, as downtowns struggled to compete with suburban malls. It was a tactic that failed in most cities: Eugene, Ore.; Little Rock, Ark.; Norfolk, Va.; Chicago, Rockford and Oak Park, Ill. -- all created pedestrian malls, but eventually reopened those streets to cars.

Madison's experiment, on the other hand, has been undeniably successful. Soglin notes that of the pedestrian malls built during the period, State Street and Boulder's Pearl Street are still thriving.

Victim of success

Grinnell says the key to State Street's success is UW-Madison, which brings in thousands of students and academics to support the businesses. The street likely would have had a revival without the city's efforts to turn it into a pedestrian mall, he adds.

"Cities ebb and wane based on things way beyond their control. One thing that's consistent [in Madison] is those students, those people who come to the university."

Soglin credits architect M. Paul Friedberg for the design charrette he held to gather input for the redesign. He adds that food was another ingredient for success: The community wanted food carts and decided to jury them. As a result, the street became a food mecca.

Not everybody was excited by the idea of a pedestrian mall. "A significant number of retailers and property owners...were convinced that without parking in front of their stores, business was going to die," Soglin says. "They were absolutely wrong.

"Now, in some ways we're a victim of success," he continues. "There was [originally] some modest hope there might be outdoor cafes and dining. But between the demands of pedestrians, parking for bicycles and all the square footage taken up by cafes, we don't have enough room in the right of way."

Some people wish State Street had less vehicle traffic. Hawk Sullivan, owner of Hawk's Bar & Grill, laments that noisy buses coughing out diesel fumes drive up and down the street all day and into the evening. He wishes State Street could be more like Boulder's Pearl Street or Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Fla., neither of which has any traffic. Says Sullivan: "You have the heart of the downtown in a beautiful city wasted by buses coming up and down constantly."

Soglin admits that buses detract from the street but says the city continues to get federal funds for keeping it a dedicated bus lane. He notes that buses are getting smaller, and that hydrogen-fuel technology is getting cheaper, with the promise of quieter, less stinky buses. "No carbon emissions, just a little H2O dripping."

The elephant on the street

Nobody really wants to talk smack about the Overture Center, because the massive arts facility clearly brings thousands of people downtown every week, along with major economic and cultural benefits.

Jerome Frautschi paid for Overture with a stunning $205 million donation. Designed by famed architect César Pelli, it opened in 2004 on the 200 block. It is easily the biggest development the street has ever seen.

But it's clear that the building, from an architectural standpoint, is a jarring presence on the block. Most of the street is composed of small shops and cafes, with entrances every 20 or 30 feet. In contrast, the Overture Center spans an entire block with just a couple of entrances.

"From a design standpoint...that block of State Street is pretty much now a blank wall," Soglin says. "That's a hard, cold space."

Tish of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation agrees: "The Overture Center introduced a design aesthetic to State Street that in my opinion is almost completely antithetical to the aesthetic that defined State Street," he says. "[The architects] did not consider the walkable character, the permeable character of the street."

What's next?

Several projects are now in the works that will test whether new development will change the street's character. One is already under construction by the Frautschi family on the 100 block of State Street, adjacent to the Overture Center.

The initial plans alarmed many preservationists by calling for the demolition of six buildings, including two landmarks. But the Frautschis altered the plans to address these concerns and save three buildings. The $11.6 million project will create a new office building and retail and restaurant space. Rental profits will be donated to Overture.

Stu Levitan, chairman of the city's Landmarks Commission, is pleased. "The way the 100 block is turning out will be a good model for the 21st century," he says. "We're going to preserve architecturally significant buildings, and we're going to have [modern] marble and glass buildings to provide the financing."

Some smaller projects are also in the works. M&A Real Estate Partners plans to build a two-story retail building in a small parking lot in the 600 block of State Street, wedged between the City Bar and the Towers on State apartment complex. And at 222 and 224 State Street, Sean Baxter wants to convert his three-story office building into apartments. He would redesign the front of the building but keep the ground level as retail space.

The biggest project in the works is on the 500 block. The Mullins Group is proposing a 12-story building where there is now a surface parking lot, the University Inn hotel, and several of the street's notable restaurants, including Buraka and Kabul. The new building would include about 30,000 square feet of commercial space and 329 upscale apartments.

On the State Street side, the building would rise one to four stories, before setting back for the taller stories.

"The size doesn't concern me," Soglin says. "The higher stories are well back of State Street. If you envision it as constructing one building along State Street and then a second building on Frances that is taller -- that's really what they're doing."

Ald. Ledell Zellers, who represents portions of downtown, is less sure about the proposal. Even though the taller stories will be set back from the street, she says, "People are going to be surprised at how imposing the buildings are likely to be there. It will change the feel of the street. It won't have quite the same small-scale feeling that the current street does."

Soglin says he is more concerned that the Mullins Group keeps the storefronts on State Street narrow.

"We've pretty well been able to keep the national chains off the street. And when they've come in, a good number of them have failed. The reason is the storefronts are relatively narrow. That narrowness and unevenness make it difficult to acquire the square footage the chains need."

Fears and hopes

Soglin frets about some of State Street's challenges.

"The two things that concern me the most are the stores becoming chains and a predominance of beverage stores. And that's not just liquor, it's coffee shops as well. People do not walk down that street to go by one continual bar and coffee shop after another. They don't walk down that street to go by one national chain after another."

Soglin says the city is contemplating an overlay zoning ordinance that would limit the number of restaurants or beverage places within a certain area, a tactic that has been used in other cities.

Mary Carbine, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), disputes the perception that the street has become a conglomeration of restaurants and bars. She says that since 1998, the number of food and beverage establishments is virtually unchanged, growing from 38% to 39%.

"What has changed pretty dramatically is the amount of retail," Carbine says. In 1998, 50% of the businesses were retail. In May, 26% were.

The retail has been replaced, she says, by service businesses like health clubs, beauty salons and banks. "That increase has happened simultaneously with the increase in downtown residents -- in particular, non-college student residents."

Carbine says that many local businesses need more space than is available on State Street.

The BID advocates for encouraging larger store footprints. While she thinks it's unlikely downtown can attract a small urban department store, she'd like to see a few more retail stores along the lines of Urban Outfitters or Fontana Sports, places to draw visitors who will shop at other stores as well.

Sullivan, who sits on the BID's board, says people shouldn't let nostalgia prevent State Street from adapting to the times.

"Do I wish every place could be a small mom-and-pop shop? Of course I do," he says. "But that's just not how it works. People should embrace change sometimes."

Soglin says he thinks the BID is making a mistake in advocating for larger footprints: "I don't share their confidence that the street will remain State Street as we know it with large storefronts."

The same, but different

When he was 15, Max Grinnell took a train trip around the United States and got to explore many cities. When he came back to Madison, he looked at State Street with fresh eyes.

He started to ask himself: "Who is on the street, what are they doing and why are they here? It sounds so basic, but that's the root of urban curiosity. Who are these people?"

Very little remains of the State Street that Grinnell knew as a kid in the 1980s.

His favorite places when he was 6 -- Rocky Rococo Pizzeria and Dotty Dumpling's Dowry -- have moved. One of the few stores that remains is the Soap Opera.

But it is still recognizably State Street, with its tempting food carts in the Library Mall and some well-known characters, like the guy who plays the piccolo.

"We've seen someone who has been here since I was a kid, Scanner Dan," Grinnell says. "There's this continuity of personalities and characters that makes a street interesting. Some people might look askance at these sorts of people and think a city street should be just for people with money or families or students. But the neat thing about Madison is it's been able to keep that mix down here. What makes it so interesting is that diversity. How do you keep that? That's the key question for city leaders."

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