Tuesday, July 21, 2009

From A Distance...Downtown Developments In Madison Build On Density

I get to Madison so infrequently these days that I can't even call myself a tourist there.

But I do know that cities, including Madison, are losing tax base and people to sprawl in all directions ( I was in Spring Green not long ago, an hour from Madison, and people there regularly commute to the capital city), so whatever the City of Madison can do to take advantage of its locale and existing density - - within reason, and you know the citizen participation piece there will be extensive - - is the way it will prosper.

Consider these proposals to expand hotel and commercial space close to the Monona Terrace complex.

More here.

I understand that there is controversy about the developments, and that there is a balancing to be done between expansion and preservation.

Both come into play when talking about development on a narrow Isthmus, obviously.

But if done right, these developments would be a revenue boon to the City, and could put the brakes on some sprawl at the edges, and beyond, of a fast-growing city.

That's really the choice for cities; the same tension is evident in Milwaukee when it comes to growth in and near its downtown.

Sprawl, or density, and you can't be against both.

For cities, the choice is density. It's a no-brainer.


rich said...

The major mis-perception is the notion that Madison neighborhoods are against density.

That is not the case. We can be for density done right, and apparently . . . still not be heard by Madison-bashers /neighborhood-bashers.

Jim, the only real bone of contention is the eagerness to embrace badly done density.

So when you write:

"If done right, these developments would be a boon to the City, and would put the brakes on some sprawl."

Sure. And done badly, they'll accelerate sprawl, because our glorious leaders are quite open about sacrificing the attributes that make Madison desirable and livable in the first place.

Take a good look at the Apex hotel rendering. It doeson't build a better city --- and makes no attempt to create the kind of model NYC-style mixed-use urban landscape Paul Soglin recently cited as the goal. There is no ground-floor retail visible, and the design has no relation to surrounding streets at all. Nothing to draw in local residents to shop or visit, no interactive ground-level features to interest pedestrians or draw people to the area.

By any measure, it's the antithesis of the kind of classic urbanism that Paul Soglin says he wants.

I do like the inclusion of 60 housing units, but inclusionary is not a word that accurately describes the proposal: that could make three hotels within mere feet of Monona Terrace, none of which are knit into the urban fabric or invite visitors to venture out to explore small downtown retail establishments, which might actually do our economy some good. Instead, the point of the design seems to be to ghetto-ize conventioneers so that hotels & the restaurants they contain can capture all of the disposable income visitors may be willing to part with.

Several decades of literature has more than exposed the damage wrought by this counterproductive approach. The Apex proposal goes to great lengths to repeat obvious errors: it "could be linked to the convention center with a pedestrian skywalk ... and a public skywalk to Lake Monona and a public wharf, Apex officials said.

So much for increasing foot traffic. Desolate streets will only compound the public safety problems Mr. Blaska has so enthusiastically blamed on ... others.

You'll forgive me for pointing out that Apex's generosity in granting Madison "a public wharf" -- when Madison already has a public park in that location -- is done for Bruce Bosben's own benefit, not for the city's pleasure or the residents' benefit.

In short, if Monona Terrace was intended to be the city's Union Terrace -- it failed. It closed off access, hardened the shoreline and did not create the vital and vibrant civic space that was promised. Ok, fine: but tacking on a 'public' wharf while failing to require Apex to create a true urban development on the site itself just will not solve that problem. Apex's mixed-use gets it half-right, but further ghetto-izing that side of the isthmus makes exactly zero sense. These developments cannot turn their back on the street and sidewalk and also claim to make a contribution to urbanity, or to civic spaces, or to the city.

So by all means, let's create more public access to the lakes. But not by building on existing parks or public access points.

(continues . . .)

enoughalready said...

Yes, cities need density, but smart density.

A hotel, housing, retail, and a parking structure near Maier Festival Park, would I think be smart. But a UWM Great Lakes Fresh Water Institute too close to the Art Museum? I think not. (But I am willing to consider all ideas.)

rich said...

Can building on existing parks or public access points really create more public access?

Which brings us to the Edgewater revamp. I'm for it, and the aesthetics aren't that bad. But the proposal repeats all the mistakes of the existing structure. It turns its back on the city's civic spaces to the rear, and has no transition between building/concrete and water. 'Public' access is by stairway: plainly uninviting unless you know you have the right to go there.

So here's the thing:
1. Given the chance to redesign a prime lakefront site, I don't see any attempt to go with cutting-edge ecological design.
2. Given the lip-service to urban density, there's very little attempt to go for high-quality spaces. Is there a civic spirit here? There's no contribution to the street, to the lake itself, or to real access that's communicated through civic-oriented design. It's still a squarish block of concrete at the end of the road. One that bears little relation to the surrounding urban fabric. Granted, there's an overlook, but again, it's an abrupt building/lake transition with limited reason to visit -- and no reason to hang on the rooftop.

City leadership is left with little to show, save for their own embarrassing behavior:

1. Mayor Dave recounts feeling like a tennis ball as he went pathetically ping-ponging between Robert Dunn and Fred Mohs. Funny, Mohs doesn't represent the neighborhood, or the city, so cutting a deal with him does exactly zilch to address the issues Dunn will have to face. At best it's a waste of Dave's time, at worst, it's degrading. Shouldn't someone else be bouncing between Mayor Dave & Robert Dunn?? Whatever comes of that prostrate stance and Dave's misunderstanding of the concerns at hand, it will not be a viable product. Alder Maniaci is (surprise) nowhere to be seen.

2. Paul Soglin's invocation of New York City was equally without substance. Density is great -- but no one wants another Miami Beach on Mendota shores. Density is no argument for failing to capitalize on the shoreline site with some real green design.

Worse, Soglin's unresponsiveness exposes an ingrained unwillingness to listen to others or up his game. The Edgewater project presumes to build on public access land. Soglin virtually ties himself in knots to defend a 35 year-old environmental record: 'it's not public! It's an easement we bought in 1973!'

That's not what the papers said, of course.

Why buy an easement if you're only going to violate that easement to construct something the easement was designed to prevent? That's what it was for: to provide access and maintain open space when development pressure becomes more intense.

Somehow, citing a 35-year-old decision to defend your current environmental bona fides pretty much proves the criticism that the city's approach settles for less, economically and environmentally.

Especially when the intent is to violate that easement, even though public access is the problem Madison' couldn't historically fix.

Face it: lake access will be lost one easement at a time. This is how it happens.

Just for the record, I'm not against either project, nor against density per se.

But I am against urban density that repeats the mistakes repeatedly cited as the bane of anything approaching real urbanism for the past 3 or 4 or 5 decades.

And I am particularly against being bullshitted with cheap excuses by two mayors I mostly admire, who're too unresponsive and too craven to push for the best possible outcome. This place should be an ecological mecca, and it's not happening.

That won't wash. We know better. Dave knows better. Paul Soglin knows better.

Across the country, other cities are ripping out the concrete lining shorelines, riverbeds and lakefronts. Not in Madison. Here, we'll pave a little more shoreline, privatize or mess with access -- and not even get the urbanism from it that proponents say they're after.

Anonymous said...

One man's ceiling is another man's floor...

I like the idea of all those libs being stacked up in Leftistan--I mean Madistan.

Madison looks like the Emerald City with Dorothy and the Straw Man ready to arrive in an SUV or an F-350. Eventually, it will become Cabrini Green when all those poor people want their piece of the pie.


Anonymous said...

Rich: on August 5 there will be a neighborhood meeting to disucss the project. When a final notice is prepared I will post it on my blog. I hope you can make it. This is an opportunity to get input from neighborhood residents on design and program issues. Please note that the present concept calls for street/ground level access to uses that serve the area. Paul @ waxingamerica