Incorporating a new downtown Exact Sciences headquarters into their Judge Doyle Square proposal was not just a home run for JDS Development. It was like three straight grand slams.
But the architectural execution of the plan at this point in the design process is a slow grounder to the second baseman.
Soon after the city revealed four proposals that met their most recent request for development on the Judge Doyle Square site, a clear leader emerged. City officials and others have come out heavily in favor of the JDS Development proposal, lured by the prospect of Exact Sciences moving their labs, offices and up to 650 employees to the Isthmus.
And I think they’re right to be excited. New, dense office development is great for downtown Madison. More people working downtown makes it easier for more people to live, eat and shop downtown (all without cars).
Though, of course, that whole urban utopia could be ruined by poor design.
And I’m not talking about the shape or style or colors of towers. What I’m concerned about—and what we should all take a close look at—is the street level experience this plan presents.
Developers love to show brilliant aerial architectural renderings. But we’re not drones. We interact with buildings from the ground, and those pedestrian-level views are what we need to focus our attention on.
And right now, the JDS Development street-level plan lacks tremendously.
Most critically are the blank and non-pedestrian walls.
Along East Wilson Street, more than half of the façade is occupied by loading docks and parking entrances. On the East Doty Street side, we see a significant portion of the façade dedicated to parking access and a big blank wall on the 100 block.
This project has enormous potential to reactivate streets killed off by parking lots and foreboding parking structures in the past 50 years. Is this plan an improvement? Sure. Is it acceptable? No.
What we have is an exciting opportunity to reactivate downtown streets. These plans need to take better advantage of that opportunity. Parking access and loading docks are necessary, yes. But we can do a better job than currently shown of capturing sidewalk space for pedestrian interaction.
The biggest miss in the JDS design happens along South Pinckney Street.
Renderings show a significant expanse of non-accessible or blank walls along the South Pinckney Street stretch. At the corner of Doty and Pinckney, we see large windows on the corners, but no access points.
Along the west side is a large staircase drawing people up to a second-level deck and then just… standing around. Urban planning researcher William H. Whyte (among many others) long rallied against building design that draws people out of the street up into spaces that aren't immediately visible. People don't like entering a space if they can't see what they're entering. These spaces become dead spaces.
The east side of Pinckney Street appears to do modestly better at activating pedestrian interaction.
From what renderings show, a great opportunity could be lost with JDS Development in this potentially dynamic block of South Pinckney Street. These designs show a building intended mostly to draw in building employees. If that’s the intention, then we’ve all had one pulled over us. We all deserve to take advantage of ours streets.
It’s entirely possible these are just crude, underdeveloped renderings. If that’s the case, then the architects have a long way to go. Particularly in the South Pinckney block, whoever is ultimately chosen to develop this site should look to the work of the ULI proposal.
The ULI renderings show a wonderfully pedestrian-oriented and well-activated South Pinckney block. And the varied facades create a more authentic and less-intimidating downtown environment. These images are the pedestrian experience I want for the Judge Doyle Square redevelopment.
Put me down as ready to jump into the Exact Sciences downtown headquarters bandwagon. It’s a fantastic opportunity if the finances check out OK. But let’s not be blinded by the opportunity, only to realize later we settled for half-planned street-level architecture and a mediocre urban experience.