You Can Lead a City to Water...

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Just that notion has been put on  the table by a landscape design firm known as JJR. Plan big, it says, but start small with a “catalytic” demonstration project that shows how the overall plan would work. JJR does urban planning out of offices in Madison, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix. Waterfront design is the Madison specialty, including successful marina projects in Sheboygan, Milwaukee, Racine and Chicago. And because its Madison office is in Machinery Row, JJR has a special interest in the reshaping of its backyard.

The firm has stepped forward with a Law Park plan that it says could be built in three years—a mere eye blink in Madison’s usual glacial timeline for development—and could later accommodate the expansive vision of Kenton Peters, Doug Kozel or anyone else with a grand plan. JJR would build a pedestrian bridge over John Nolen from South Hancock Street and connect it to the Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse that was proposed in 1893 but never built on Lake Monona. (Peters and Kozel would also include construction of the fabled boathouse in their versions.) While JJR would use the boathouse for neighborhood canoe and kayak storage, its plan would also include a floating dock for boaters from across the chain of lakes to tie up and, say, have lunch at a downtown bistro.The JJR plan envisions Law Park as a destination for boaters.

“We’re looking at this as not just a park for people who want to get on the lake, but as an arrival park for people coming off the lake,” says JJR president Fred Klancnik. He makes a good point: The new park shouldn’t just serve the needs of visitors and downtown residents. It needs to be a destination site.

“We’ve done facilities like this for twenty different marinas in the last five years,” Klancnik says. “There’s state funding available, some federal funding, too.”

Of course, money is an issue. The recession is casting an enormous pall on state and local spending, and the city is looking at other costly capital projects, including a new library, central park and a revamped Peace Park on State Street. When I talked to Mayor Cieslewicz about a lake park, he had just told city department heads to cut their capital budget requests by twenty percent. How could the Law Park project be justified? The mayor was unfazed.

“I’m very realistic of what we can do over the course of the next year or two,” he says. “But this vision isn’t for the next year or two. In the context of a downtown plan, you got to think big, because we’ll never do anything if we don’t imagine it first and then work towards it. No, it’s not going to happen in the next six months, but maybe it will happen in the next decade.”

Cieslewicz’s long view is reassuring. But there’s just one thing wrong: After one hundred years of inaction, hasn’t the time finally come for the downtown to embrace the Lake Monona waterfront?  That’s a question of almost existential dimensions for Madison. Can this city fulfill its destiny? The Chicago model is instructive. Madison’s downturn blindly turned its back on Lake Monona, while Chicago proudly celebrated Grant Park as the city’s front yard.

Both John Nolen and Daniel Burnham were seminal figures in the City Beautiful and other planning movements that sought to bring order and amenities to what had been the rapid, haphazard and slum-prone urbanization of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Providing park, recreation and cultural space for the teeming masses was high among the priorities for progressive-minded planners like Nolen and Burnham. That democratic impulse certainly underlies the wildly popular Millennium Park as well.

 “Millennium Park is everyone’s park,” Uhlir tells me. “It’s not associated with a single neighborhood or ethnic group. We also let people touch the art, we don’t fence it off. That’s one way we engage people with the park and why they feel comfortable here.”

For Madison, the Millennium Park model isn’t farfetched. Uhlir, who is Millennium’s director of planning, architecture and landscape, lectured here in March 2007 at an event sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters at Overture Center. Cieslewicz shared the dais and spoke favorably of Madison creating its own “great park.”

Back then the mayor seemed to lean more to the long-simmering “central park” concept as the site (or possibly James Madison Park), but more recently he has favored Law Park as the place to make it happen. “I don’t see it fulfilling the Millennium Park concept anymore,” Cieslewicz says of the now scaled-back central park proposal.

Uhlir toured the isthmus during his visit, including Law Park. “I like your downtown. It’s easy to walk around and everything is convenient,” he says. “But when I was on the Capitol Square I had little sense that the lake was nearby.” He points out that Seattle and Boston are spending vast sums to exploit their waterfronts. “A lot of cities are realizing that making those connections to the water are important to their long-term vitality,” he says.

So how would Uhlir advise Madison? Embrace the lakes, eliminate the physical barriers, and bring park space and public amenities to the water’s edge.
 

And Uhlir quotes the famous Daniel Burnham admonishment that has echoed through the decades to inspire new generations of civic leaders, neighborhood activists and elected officials when they consider downtown revitalization.

“Make no small plans.”

Marc Eisen, former editor of Isthmus, is a Madison-based freelance writer.

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