You Can Lead a City to Water...
Architect Doug Kozel's big idea to improve the isthmus is to put John Nolen Drive/Highway 151 underground.
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I like Chicago. Three or four times a year I head down to hear music, spend a night or two and take in the sights. Invariably there are two stops on my gotta-do list: I visit the Art Institute even if it’s only for a half-hour at closing time—the world-class Impressionism collection never fails to lift my spirits.
And I walk through Millennium Park—a world-class urban park that always gets me thinking about Madison. Coffee cup in hand, I’ve traversed its twenty-four acres eight or nine times, usually in the early morning, with the bright sun highlighting the magnificent Chicago skyline that serves as the park’s glorious backdrop.
Built on what had been a dead zone of mostly surface parking lots and railroad tracks near the gorgeous Lake Michigan lakefront, Millennium Park is a testament to the power of transformational urban projects. The space features cutting-edge architecture in a Frank Gehry–designed amphitheater, wildly popular interactive art installations, intense natural plantings, a restaurant and playhouse, and two vast underground car and bike garages beneath it all. (Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz may be right when he calls Millennium Park “the most successful green roof in the world.”)
The park opened in 2004 at a cost to the public of $270 million and has proved a huge draw for tourists and townies alike. Four million visitors are expected this year. Within ten years of opening, the experts predict $1.4 billion in spinoff condo and retail development. (Parks generally add ten percent to the value of adjacent property, Millennium’s Ed Uhlir told me. Around Millennium Park, he says, “The increase has been upwards of forty percent.”)
I finish my walk in front of Anish Kapoor’s highly polished and coolly reflective “Cloud Gate” sculpture, which somehow mirrors the 360-degree surroundings and draws tourists and their cameras like a 110-ton elliptical magnet. I drain my coffee and ask myself the same question every time: Could Madison, in a much more modest fashion, create the same magic on its Lake Monona waterfront?
That’s the Moby Dick of downtown issues. It has haunted Madison for a hundred years, dating to John Nolen’s legendary city plan introduced in 1909 and published as a book, Madison: A Model City, in 1911. Soon to be the most influential planner in the U.S., Nolen envisioned the city we know today—the Capitol view protected for all to see, the nature preserve at the Arboretum, the UW campus stretching out to Picnic Point and Eagle Heights, the concentration of government buildings between the Capitol and Monona Terrace. Ignored was his plaintive call for a strong “organic” link between the Capitol Square and Lake Monona for the public’s enjoyment.
In Chicago, Daniel Burnham’s expansive plan (unveiled in the same year, 1909) was sounding a very similar note—preserve Chicago’s lakefront “forever open, clear and free”—by creating Grant Park. Today, it is home to expansive festival grounds, the city’s great museums, Buckingham Fountain and various recreational venues. Located on its northwest corner, Millennium Park is a new addition to the Grant Park constellation.
Madison never did build Nolen’s proposed “Grand Mall” leading from the Capitol (via terraced steps) to a “Great Esplanade” stretching one-and-a-half miles along the Lake Monona shoreline. Instead, in an act of unintended insult, the city named the six-lane highway that now effectively sunders the lake from the Capitol Square “John Nolen Drive.” (Nolen, who died in 1937, surely rolled over in his grave.)
Not that links to the lake haven’t been pondered in the many decades following A Model City. Most everyone knows about Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous proposals for what finally became the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in 1997. Wes Peters’s sweeping Monona Basin Plan from 1967 called for a civic center and lakefront park where Monona Terrace now sits in addition to an amphitheater and marina at Olin Park. On four separate occasions, Kenton Peters—no relation to Wes Peters except for their shared iconoclasm—proposed grand plans for the Lake Monona shoreline at Law Park, including a tech school, shopping center, convention center and in 2001 a park that terraces over John Nolen Drive. It uncannily anticipated the key design element Millennium Park embraced a few years later: Build the park on top of a huge subterranean parking ramp.
Meanwhile, Monona Terrace has proved an unabashed success as a convention center but not for its linkage to the waterfront. At best it provides an awkward connection—via an elevator—to the lake that it so dramatically overlooks.
Haunting Madison is English architectural critic Ian Nairn’s stinging 1965 putdown of isthmus development. Nairn toured the United States to research his book The American Landscape: A Critical View. Approaching our city from the old causeway, he said “the first view of Madison across Lake Monona is a catharsis, like the first view of Chartres or Venice.” The downtown’s position between two large lakes was “fantastic,” he said. Like Nolen, Nairn saw an extraordinary opportunity to bring the city to the water’s edge.
But, no, it was not to be. Madison’s failure to embrace the lakes, Nairn sternly lectured, “is a slap across the face with a cold, wet fish, one of the cruelest disappointments in America.”
Indeed, Law Park has been “the tombstone for a lot of great ideas,” Madison historian David Mollenhoff tells me. “That whole shoreline has been incredibly vision-resistant for so long.”
The good news is that Madison’s waterfront connection is again up for discussion as the city solicits ideas for an updated downtown plan expected to be completed in 2010.
That means another look at Kenton Peters’s dramatic lakefront plan to build a park on top of a seven-hundred stall parking ramp and a tunneled John Nolen Drive. Deb Archer, president of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, says a waterfront connection like Peters’s ranked high in the bureau’s survey of what likely Madison visitors wanted to see in local amenities. Archer calls Peters’s vision “bold and brilliant—a stunning idea.” Of course, Peters’s unbuilt plans often inspire that kind of intense admiration, but only occasionally sufficient political support to be built. A singular thinker and unreconstructed modernist in a town where consensus and architectural conservatism reign, Peters is perpetually at odds with the powers that be.
Architect Doug Kozel recently came up with an equally audacious plan. He wants to bury John Nolen Drive (alternately known as U.S. Highway 151) through Blair Street from about Monona Terrace to Railroad Street just past the MGE headquarters on Blair. Working with the venerable landscape architect Phil Lewis and planner Steve Steinhoff, Kozel envisions a festival park at Law Park and possibly the centralized train station that Lewis has been championing for decades. But the project’s real genius would be putting the north-south traffic corridor underground, thus taming the seriously congested Blair Street interchange. That’s the no–man’s land where Blair converges with John Nolen Drive, Williamson and King streets, several well-used bike paths, a train track and a steady stream of pedestrians, not to mention traffic exiting from Machinery Row and the occasional low-flying duck.
The interchange actually works fairly well for traffic, but it can be a hassle—even dangerous—for bicyclists and pedestrians. That exacts a steep cost. One of the isthmus’s inherent strengths—its walkability—is fatally compromised by the maze of traffic. Not just walking or biking from the Square to Lake Monona but also from the Square to the east rail corridor where the city has high hopes of fostering new commerce and housing along with a new central park.
When I mentioned Kozel’s plan to Dick Wagner, the veteran civic activist instantly recognized how it would change the downtowns dynamics for the better. Wagner’s impromptu suggestion? Have 151 surface not at Railroad Street but further down Blair at East Washington Avenue. This would enhance Main Street, Wagner says, allowing it to flow unimpeded as the artery connecting the Square to the new office, housing and light industrial district envisioned for the east rail corridor.
Of course, both Peters’s and Kozel’s proposals are the sort of big-ticket, upset-the-apple-cart ideas that could tie City Hall up into decades of committee meetings, public hearings and referendums before disappearing into the dustbin of inaction. But what if the whole Torquemadian review process could be fast-tracked? That would be a game changer.