The New Global Gateway

Many people say it’s the best view of the Capitol dome in all of Madison, the approach up East Washington Avenue. It really hits you just past First Street, over the Yahara River bridge and across the railroad tracks at what used to be Fyfe’s restaurant—especially at night. Our Capitol is a stunner, a glowing beacon for airport travelers visiting Madison or, for the luckiest among us, those coming home.

But there’s no sugarcoating how hard it is, if you love this city, to cruise past the sprawling Gisholt building on the left, abandoned by Marquip nearly a decade ago. Past Don Miller and the old Madison Dairy, now shuttered, past the deep red brick walls of Mautz Paint, now closed. The steely eastern gateway corridor once so well known for its industrial chops has suffered greatly over the past four decades. The face of manufacturing has changed, and evidence of its tired body stretches all down East Wash and its corroborating blocks.

Despite this deceleration, the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the east isthmus remains intact, fostered by its vibrant,
community-focused neighborhoods. Over the last several years a cadre of public officials and civic leaders have worked with the Marquette, Tenney-Lapham, Emerson East and Schenk-Atwood neighborhoods on a plan to revitalize this 240-acre arterial stretch, hoping foremost to capitalize on its unique assets: creative, eclectic people, a talented urban workforce and existing barebones infrastructure that experts say is ripe for a potential billion-dollar tax base. According to them, the Capitol East District is now ready to begin its reign as a creative, edgy, sustainable urban employment ceMayor Dave Cieslewicznter and living community with stunning potential for economic growth. The plan is in place, and implementation starts now.

“The Capitol East District has the potential to be the biggest economic development engine for the city and the region since the University Research Park,” says Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. “We’re spurring economic development and job creation at a time when we need it the most. We’re ready, and we’re moving forward.”

He’s talking about the game-changing announcement on October 18, 2010, publicizing the city’s intention to use $4.73 million in land bank funds to purchase the 7.76-acre Don Miller property on East Washington. Cieslewicz predicts the city will “get all of its money back and perhaps more” in a move that marks the latest—and arguably most significant—development in the Capitol East District effort to date.

“The city’s role here is to channel the market as we make this historic transition into an urban tech center,” says Cieslewicz. “We’re talking about businesses that are in the ascendancy, industries that are growing. We want to have a place to make them grow, that’s the plan.”

And the plan for the Capitol East District is, in a word, impressive.

Take that aforementioned vacant Gisholt building, for instance. As of last year it was no longer empty—6,000 square feet now houses the University Research Park’s Metro Innovation Center, a high-tech incubator for startups in IT, engineering, medical devices, computer sciences and the like, marking the university’s first commitment east of the Capitol. As the plan continues to evolve, the Metro Innovation Center will anchor what will become the Urban Technology Campus, a six-block core development project encompassing several other new and existing projects and businesses, such as the Madison Enterprise Center (another vibrant startup incubator on Baldwin Street), Central Park as it continues to evolve to fruition, Research Products, located here since 1938, and more.

Farther up toward the Capitol is a second proposed core development, the Capitol East Center, its apex at the four corners of Paterson and East Washington. Once fully realized, it will be a walkable, high-density business, living and entertainment district. At its heart are two key initiatives: one, a revitalized Breese Stevens Field as a destination sports venue. And two, the Madison Sustainability Commerce Center, a proposed 70,000- to 100,000-square-foot building slated for development on one of the Don Miller parcels, supported in part by a $300,000 Department of Housing and Urban Development grant. This building alone could spell hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in green tourism.

Then there’s the Yahara River, connecting Madison’s two touchstone lakes, ripe for riverfront housing, business and entertainment development. There’s the MG&E downtown campus, already nearly coal free and deeply committed to the Capitol East District
development plan. There’s the $80 million investment the city has already made on construction and street-scaping East Wash, and the establishment of the Capitol Gateway tax incremental finance district. Not to mention a twenty-five-year UW effort to establish Madison as a world-class research and development hub that the Capitol East District could only bolster.

Jim Bower“The city has spent the last seven to eight years doing what cities need to do,” says Jim Bower of the Bower Group. “They’ve spent an immense amount of time thinking through and planning for this land use. Now the planning is done, it’s ready for the marketplace, and the city will remain a partner every step of the way.”

It’s fitting that on the 100-year anniversary of John Nolen’s original city plan for Madison, we turn our attention to such an ambitious plan. As you’ll hear from consultants and planners over the following pages, it isn’t enough to sit back and wait for private developers to take down sprawling city blocks, to hope for like-minded entrepreneurs to find their way to each other and set up shop. They say this is what cities are meant to do, all across the country; intervene when the market isn’t rebounding on its own. Some may ask “why now,” but what if we’d gotten started forty years ago, or thirty? What if, when the United States experienced its most significant economic expansion in history in the 1990s, the Capitol East Corridor had been ready for startups like Epic? As our beloved outlying communities flourished, the largest geographical area in the heart of downtown Madison didn’t receive a single development deal. This is where the planners come in.

The Capitol East District is brewing up the perfect storm. There are six neighborhoods rallying at the grassroots level for change. There’s a majority landowner motivated to return East Washington Avenue to its shining prime. There are dozens of civic leaders, nonprofit and private-sector businesses, consultants, planners, developers and think-tankers bellied up to the Capitol East District table, planning and contributing. There’s the city of Madison, with a mayor whose first move in office in 2003 was to invest in East Washington Avenue (followed closely by the creation of Central Park), historically heavily involved in green initiatives as a whole—now strategically investing a chunk of city dollars to jump-start the project.

Things are beginning to get very exciting as the city feels its way to a tipping point, from market failure to market momentum, in the Capitol East District.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz

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