The Top 12 Isthmus Development Sites

Madison is growing and we shouldn’t expect that to slow anytime soon. Between 2000 and 2013, the city grew by 17%. And that growth is even larger than the city expected just a decade ago.

In January 2006, the City of Madison projected a population of 236,094 by 2015. But by 2013, that number was already 243,344.

The Urban Institute, a national public policy think tank, has mapped the entire United States for projected population loss and growth over the next 15 years. Their models suggest a 19.11% growth rate for the wider Madison area through 2030.

Anecdotally, medical software giant Epic plans to add a net 1,500 employees by September 2015. And that’s before the construction of another campus on their Verona site. The entrepreneurial scene in Madison also continues to heat up.

And as a general global trend, more people are moving to cities. People are learning to love living in dense urban neighborhoods again.

All this means a big impact on the Madison housing market. The city is in a housing building boom—particularly on the isthmus. But it’s still not enough to keep up adequately with growth.

The city’s rental vacancy rate at the end of 2014 was 2.39%, which is up from a low of 1.88% in the beginning of 2013. But the national average is 4.1%, and a healthy vacancy rate for a city is considered around 5%.

So Madison has a long way to go to meet current and future housing needs. And until the city can catch up with thousands of new units over the coming years, rents will likely continue to rise.

But this is an exciting opportunity. With higher populations comes the chance for denser populations on the isthmus. And research repeatedly shows that density is better for neighborhoods and makes for happier people. Don’t believe me? Just read Charles Montgomery’s book. (Don’t confuse density with overpopulation.)


Where will we fit these people?

I’ve identified 12 areas on the isthmus I believe have strong potential for denser development that can accelerate already great neighborhoods or grow new neighborhoods.

Not every structure surrounded by a yellow border below needs to go. Many buildings within the bounds are either already new development or have other value—whether it be historical or functional. But the areas overall hold a lot of potential.

And we shouldn’t imagine every area below as the next grove of 12-story high rises. Most of these sites are best suited for 3-6-story development that creates dense but neighborhood-scaled environments.

 Map courtesy of


1. Old University Avenue

The area between Old University Avenue and Campus Drive is a collection of aging housing and outdated apartment buildings. A refocus of development facing Old University and a better use of parking space could spark a vibrant stretch of the near west side. See map.


2. Monroe Street at Regent

Monroe Street east of this intersection is booming with new restaurants, cafes, stores and housing. But the 1600 and 1700 blocks hold potential for new well-scaled but dense development, linking Monroe Street with the University of Wisconsin campus. See map.


3. West Dayton Street at Basset

This area is already under a lot of transformation, but a complete infill of dense development here seems inevitable and smart. Intentionally, Mifflin Street is preserved as is. See map.


4. Basset Neighborhood

As housing stock in this neighborhood continues to age, 3-4 story development has begun to enter with huge success. More of this should continue, with both housing and retail. See map.


5. County Parking Structure

An aging parking structure and a triangular slice of South Hamilton Street sit within the shadow of encroaching development. New housing and retail on this site would further fuel the growth of what is becoming a strong southwest corner off the Capitol Square. See map.


6. Judge Doyle Square

Current plans for this site are in limbo, but eventual development is inevitable. With the preservation of the Madison Municipal Building and new construction behind, this site holds more potential than any other single space on the isthmus—if done right. See map.


7. GEF 1 and Parking

GEF 1 stands as a functional state office building, but it’s street-level blank walls kill the area around it. Ground-level renovations and new development in the parking lot next door hold the potential for an entirely new pocket of residential, office and retail activity just a block from the Capitol Square. See map.


8. North Hamilton Street at Johnson and Butler

This is one of downtown Madison’s four six-cornered intersections, which means the potential for a unique buzz of activity. Recent development in the area lays the groundwork for further density that should also preserve a few of the current historical corner structures. See map.


9. East Main Street

This site is too large for any single comprehensive plan. But as the years pass, it will become more difficult to argue for the usefulness of city utility yards on the isthmus as urban housing and office spaces gradually encroach from all sides. This is a blank slate opportunity with the potential for something truly great. See map.


10. East Johnson Street

The 600 and 700 blocks of East Johnson Street have the potential for a Williamson Street-like stretch. Many current buildings on these blocks are aging poorly and do not lend themselves well to the commercial district the neighborhood desires. See map.


11. Tenney Locks

Situated between the beautiful Tenney Park, Yahara River, Lake Mendota and the Emerson East Neighborhood is a two-story office building with a massive, space-consuming parking lot. It’s not difficult to see the potential for new development here. See map.


12. Yahara River

Madison is fortunate that forward-thinking individuals decades ago preserved the shores of the Yahara River as a parkway for public access. And now, industrial spaces between East Washington Avenue and Williamson Street could become prime low-rise residential infill along the parkway. See map.