An Intentional Place

Don't just sit there; come be a part of the next downtown plan

What if you lived in the capital of Wisconsin and your lake view was not Mendota or Monona but Lake Winnebago?

Could Fond du Lac really have been the thirty square miles surrounded by reality?

Indeed, the bill first introduced into the territorial legislature named Fond du Lac as the state’s capital. But Judge James Duane Doty had other intentions, especially since he had purchased the land on the isthmus between Mendota and Madison and laid out the plat for a paper city. When Doty successfully lobbied for his new capital of Madison, our city plans began.

In 1911, John Nolen, the father of urban planning in America, produced a document called Madison: A Model City. In it, the one thing Nolen noted that Doty got right was the location of the State Capitol on a large public square on the isthmus’s height of land. However, Nolen deplored Doty’s handing over the lakeshores to private endeavors and thought the use of a standard grid pattern ignored the rolling topography.

Thus it has always been with Madison’s plans, some good things and some not so good. Part of the reason is that plans are
really visions of the future. And nobody’s crystal ball is that good.

Nolen’s ambitious “city beautiful” plan drew on European and American models to describe what a great capital and university city should look like, including public features like an arboretum, botanical garden, zoo, public art galleries, museums and more. Public buildings, he noted, should be grouped together like the mall in Washington, D.C.

To protect views of the new Capitol building, a height restriction would be necessary. And Nolen envisioned an organic link to the lakes with a grand terrace on Lake Monona. As a city we’ve achieved much of what he recommended, if over a longer horizon than he imagined.

Since Doty’s plats and Nolen’s vision, Madison has continued its urban planning, and today we are often faced with a welter of ideas—from the city’s statutorily required Comprehensive Plan to plans for neighborhoods, institutions like UW–Madison, parks, transportation and sewage.

If plans were self-executing we would not need city staff, commissions or the city council to approve the subsequent projects. The last major central city plan, “Downtown 2000,” was completed in 1989 and began with a review of the prior 1970 “Downtown: Proposals for Central Madison.” The review concluded the city had successfully followed the earlier plan in creating new tools for city making in the urban design and landmarks commissions, including the new Civic Center, established in 1976 on State Street. But the failures had included zero lot line buildings that later were prohibited.

Many elements of “Downtown 2000” have been successful. Among its recommendations: a centralized retail management for State Street and the Square now realized through the Central Business Improvement District. TIF was recommended to help create diverse housing options. The Lake Monona shoreline mid-rise residential development then envisioned was built. Cooperating to site state facilities resulted in the buildings for Administration, Justice and Commerce. The Findorff yards area redevelopment has begun. Monona Terrace convention facilities were sketched as possible, as were Capitol Square prime offices through projects like the now-successful Block 89. Yet there were some misses, too, with multiple skywalks now an abandoned pipedream.

As the new Downtown Plan begins its final stages toward an adopted document, now is the time to bring your thoughts and intentions to it. Join the process and make your visions known. Be sure to check the Downtown Plan website for upcoming public hearing dates and additional information on the planning process:

cityofmadison.com/neighborhoods/downtownplan

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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