Growth west of the Beltline has been ramping up for the last 15 years. Developers and municipal types have worked out a pretty good system: Someone buys a chunk of land, builds houses on part of it and sells some to an "anchor" business, often a bank, insurance company or retail outlet.
Usually, this anchor business buys more land than it needs, so it can sell off parcels to smaller businesses. Thus it can control who its neighbors are and what kind of buildings they build. And everybody can share parking.
But what if that anchor business is a church? Does that throw a wrench into the process?
Nobody knows, since the new Blackhawk Church being built on Madison's far west side is the first in the nation to follow this model, so far as anybody can tell.
"It was unique in the sense that the developer was a church," says Brad Murphy, planning unit director for the city of Madison.
"I have not heard of anyone doing exactly that," agrees Ron Womack, executive director of the National Association of Church Design Builders, based in Austin, Texas.
"Exactly that," in Blackhawk's case, is to buy 40 acres, build a mega-church on some of it, and sell off the rest. Blackhawk Church Town Centre, as it will be called, will take up 40 of the 1,100 or so acres in the Elderberry Neighborhood. That neighborhood is bounded by Mineral Point Road to the south, Old Sauk Road to the north, Pioneer Road to the west, and Pleasant View Road to the east. This area, about three miles west of the Beltline, was recently annexed into the city of Madison.
Blackhawk church paid $3.2 million for its share of Elderberry, and by the time the 125,000-square-foot church is built, it will have spent nearly $20 million. That's an awful lot of bake sales and spaghetti suppers, but the church should be able to recoup some of its investment.
According to Blackhawk executive pastor Gregg Bergman, the church intends to occupy nine acres and has already sold the rest to a two-person development team that will control who buys the remaining parcels. He says that speaks to the limitations of the church's expertise: "We're not developers. We can barely figure out this church thing."
But Madison officials are pleased with the result. "The leaders of the church and the people they hired to do the plan did a fine job," says Murphy. The plan put forward by the church fit in nicely with the mixed-use vision for the Elderberry Neighborhood, and "that's all good." Murphy says one additional office building has already been approved.
Blackhawk's new location will provide it with plenty of parking, something lacking at its Whitney Way site. Currently, the church must shuttle people from various parking spots around the west side. This includes borrowing the American Red Cross' lot, in return for help with blood drives. ("We trade blood for parking," says Bergman.)
Speaking of the church's old Whitney Way location, a deal to sell it to Wingra School fell through in August, so it's back on the market. Church leaders remain optimistic that a buyer can be found before the new building opens next fall.
In addition to parking, the church's new site, says Womack, will enhance its visibility: "As people are coming there day-to-day for other things, the church is always there."
But Womack does raise a concern about the plan - Blackhawk may be thinking too small. "As they continue to grow, they may wish they had some of [the land] back," he says. "Nine acres sounds like not enough for a church of that size."