Downtown: The Madison Story
A City Within a City
When I was going to high school in the 1950s I had a friend whose family was in real estate. Reflecting on the construction boom of the Eisenhower years, he told me we rebuild America every twenty-five years—that what we build in a quarter-century’s time equals what we had before. Certainly that is part of Madison’s story. In 1950 the population was 96,000, compared to 240,000 today. Using these figures as a yardstick, we have easily shared in the country’s rapid growth over the last sixty years. Measure housing units as part of the boom and our story develops an exciting plot twist.
The Isthmus 2020 plan adopted in June 1998 ambitiously called for 4,000 new housing units by the year 2020. With household size at about two persons per unit the population downtown would increase by 8,000. Under Wisconsin law, the threshold for a village to become a city is 5,000. If the plan meets its goal we really would see the equivalent of a whole new city on the land between the lakes—downtown Madison.
Since Dane County remains one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, maximizing the urban core is essential to protecting and preserving our rural lands and waterways. That’s the strategy behind the Isthmus 2020 plan. Think of it this way: Preserving some regional farmland is much better for the aquifer, the underground water source that flows from our faucets. And we love going to farmer’s markets to buy from local producers, so why force them into other counties? But you don’t have to be sentimental to realize an efficiency aspect. A new city of 8,000 residents would use existing streets, fire stations, sewer lines, water service, parks and more. In undeveloped areas these infrastructure expenditures are an average cost per unit of $22,300—most often picked up by the municipality and therefore shared by existing homeowners, who pay seventy-one percent of the local property taxes.
So with just a decade left to meet an ambitious goal by 2020, how are we doing? Since 1990 the city has grown by 26,200 housing units, according to the census—an estimated 14,000 of that total since the turn of the century alone. In the area that marks downtown—Yahara River west to Breese Terrace—nearly 1,000 condo units have gone up in the last decade. New private apartments have added more than 2,500 units, while UW–Madison has put up 1,014 units in Newell Smith and Ogg halls. Just a few blocks from Capitol Square at 731 Williamson Street, a new single-family home has improved the parcel’s value from $2,000 to $208,000. Current forecasts project we will not just meet but exceed Isthmus 2020’s vision, perhaps by two cities’ worth.
Eight thousand additional citizens, mostly adults, suggests the downtown’s annual household income has increased by $227,228,400 (calculated by multiplying the number of downtown households by the average Madison household income). This is a real market! Other data suggest the average two-person household annually spends more than $4,000 on groceries—add in the “new” city, and the grocery store revenues increase to $17 million. Welcome Fresh Market and a busier Willy Street Co-op parking lot! The same data suggest the average household spends well for restaurants, potentially pouring $14,872,000 annually into the marketplace. Likewise for entertainment dollars and many other retail and service sectors. Indeed, the new city has economic and quality of life benefits across a wide spectrum. In addition to the early morning commuters and late evening revelers a new form has emerged on downtown streets, the resident dog walker. Extra eyes and activity adds to an area’s safety. Many of these new urban dwellers work downtown so they can often walk, bike, or bus to jobs without additional pressure on the car-laden streets.
We can’t officially name this new city since it is already called Madison, named after our fourth President. But perhaps we ought to think of these 21st-century residents as Dolly Madison city dwellers. After all they have the pluck of the wife of James, the stylish and accomplished First Lady who rescued treasures from the White House during the war of 1812.
Dick Wagner, a former member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, currently serves on the Board of Directors for Downtown Madison, Inc.
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