In summer 2014, Madison gained a real diamond in the rough.
The diamond is Central Park, an idea that’s been floating around Madison since the 1970s. Just over 7 acres officially opened as Madison’s newest city park in June and while there’s still a lot of work to do, the potential is immediately apparent.
But the rough part is, it’s located in a rail corridor. Both the north and the south edges of the park are bordered by rail lines.
And along with the rail lines, there is certainly some sort of undeniable charm about the light industrial atmosphere along the northern edge of the park. But that charm dies pretty quickly when you’re trying to enjoy a show at Central Park Sessions on a Thursday night and the train comes through, horn blaring.
When you enter Central Park, one immediate feeling is that of claustrophobia because of the fences that surround the space. The fences help separate park-goers from the rail lines. Safety first. But if we get rid of the rail lines, we can get rid of the fences.
And then Central Park can realize its full potential.
Out of sight, out of mind
This design adopts a very aggressive rail solution: put the trains underground.
Expensive? Yes. But that’s the fun of this project- we get to dream.
With a single, consolidated rail tunnel running approximately under the current northern border of the park, you not only open the park on all sides, but you also open the possibility for a new neighborhood around the park.
To begin, let’s imagine the park’s full 10 acre plan is realized as commercial buildings at the corner of Baldwin and Wilson are converted to further green space [A].
New buildings are indicated as grey in this design. Parking is dark grey.
Keep what works
This plan keeps the single family homes along East Wilson Street that make the Williamson Marquette neighborhood so special. In fact, on the west end of East Wilson Street, this design calls for more single family homes.
While walking down East Wilson Street when envisioning this plan, I couldn’t bring myself to imagine a scenario where all those homes had to be demolished.
At Few and Wilson Streets, two denser buildings are proposed to replace a few aging structures [B].
East Wilson Street remains a bike boulevard but is extended to Brearly Street, where it then narrows back down to the bicycle-only Capital City Trail [C]. The Brearly and Wilson intersection is now anchored by two modest commercial corner buildings [D]. Good for shops or restaurants.
A blank slate
With the rail now underground, we have a new street running along the northern border of Central Park (“New Street”). The light industrial currently bordering that space makes way for new housing and commercial space.
Between Ingersoll and Baldwin streets, four-story row houses are planned. These structures are intended to all maintain a similar scale. Though individual, they will form a long block of close-knit housing. The residential structures should include walk-ups and each building will be positioned along a straight property line down the block with the exception of perhaps one building that may serve as restaurant space in the middle of the block [E]. Bringing that building in will allow for outdoor dining.
There will also be a cut-through mid-block to allow east-west access between Ingersoll and Baldwin Streets [F].
A one-way alley will run behind these structures to facilitate a service point for commercial deliveries and automobile access for residential underground parking.
The landscaping in front of the row house structures should include ample shade trees and soft streetlights.
The west side of Ingersoll Street, where it intersects “New Street,” will be anchored by one of the largest buildings in the plan [G]. To be no more than one story higher than the row houses, this building will provide space for local restaurants and commercial tenants. The two buildings next west will continue the row house design.
The community space
In the middle of the block between Brearly and Ingersoll is an important community space [H]. Imagine a sort of hybrid-library-coffee shop-community center. It will be cozy yet spacious and will play its most significant role when the cold sets in.
This space will give the neighborhood a place to gather and build relationships, especially in the winter. It should be designed so as to be welcoming and comfortable. People should want to come to this space to read, relax and mix.
We often dream of designs with the most brilliant weather in mind. But in Madison, cold and snow are a reality, and we need to offer the neighborhood the opportunity to flourish when it’s not ideal to be outside.
The remainder of the grey buildings in this plan represent various residential and commercial opportunities. Note where Wilson ends and the bike path begins. The buildings continue down the bike path, offering a bicycle-only development opportunity.
And on the west end of “New Street” is a parking structure [I], masked in an appropriate façade. As much as this plan is designed with the pedestrian and bicycle in mind, it’s a reality that cars will have to be accommodated for the commercial spaces.
This plan also leaves the Metro Transit Center in place. Although, it seems only a matter of time for this piece of real estate to become too valuable to maintain as a sprawling bus depot. Maybe we’ll dream about that another time.
The new residential opportunities must include affordable housing. This plan must also include a mix of rental properties as well as opportunities for homeownership.
A portion of the housing should feature modestly-sized floor plans—this will both help keep down costs (allowing for more affordable units) and is a reaction to the trends of younger generations who no longer desire sprawling living spaces. The community space in this plan will play an important role for those living in the smaller floor plans.
What’s the reality?
This is not one project, but a plan that envisions what years of individual projects could create. But some elements are vital for the success of this new neighborhood: Individual projects must include affordable housing and space for commercial opportunities. The community space is also a vital piece of the puzzle.
Will we ever see rail buried under Madison? Well, there’s already chatter about it. A group of Madisonians have been dreaming of a new park space east of the Monona Terrace. This plan includes the potential to bury a portion of John Nolen Drive. This would have to include the rail line as well.
In nearly all big cities, the rail eventually goes underground as you approach the city center. Perhaps it is only a matter of time for Madison as well.
At the very least, it seems that we can eliminate at least one of the rail lines going through the park. This alone would open a significant number of opportunities.
Central Park has a bright future. Even if not a single piece of this plan is ever realized, Madison has gained a marvelous asset. We should all be grateful to those who made Central Park a reality.
But as Madison grows, it seems imminent that land will grow very valuable on the near east side. Light industrial companies will have lucrative incentives to move their operations out of downtown and sell their land for development.
Whether that takes 10 or 100 years, the crystal ball has gone foggy. So we’ll just have to keep dreaming in the meantime.