Madison's Next Great Street
We all love the big projects. The landmark buildings. The city-defining developments.
But it’s the little spaces that create great neighborhoods and cities. You don’t need to clear out entire blocks to revitalize a street, and a better block doesn't have to cost tens of millions. Just consider a few key principles.
Jane Jacobs established four rules for great urban neighborhoods in her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
- Mixed primary uses
- Short blocks, allowing high pedestrian access
- Buildings of various ages and repair
Madison's next great street creates a place that uses all four suggestions to build a denser, more pedestrian-friendly, diverse commercial and residential district in Madison’s Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood.
Tenney-Lapham has always had a small but steady commercial district along the 700, 800 and 900 blocks of East Johnson Street, though business turnover has been frequent. But new residential development in the neighborhood promises to bring a much-expanded customer base and new stability to the commercial district.
In fact, the neighborhood’s total number of residential units could grow by as much as 50% in a span of four years. In 2013, Tenney-Lapham had somewhere around 2,000 residential units (houses, apartments, condos). Between already completed projects and planned projects, that number will likely jump to 2,900 by 2017.
Long story short, a lot of new energy is coming to what’s already one of Madison’s great residential neighborhoods, and these residents are going to want more places to shop, eat, socialize and relax.
The Project: washburn street extension
One of the isthmus’s most inherent urban design problems is its rigid street grid. Almost without exception, the entire east half of the isthmus is the same grid of long, rectangular blocks repeated over and over. There are a few exceptions though, including Washburn Place, which breaks up the space north of the 800 block of East Gorham Street. This project would extend Washburn Place another block south to East Johnson Street as a pedestrian-only street.
First and foremost, this project is designed to break up a too-long block that is partially choking out potential.
The idea: Construct a mid-block cut-through between the 800 blocks of East Gorham and East Johnson Streets. The pass-through will be lined with pedestrian-scaled, mixed-use commercial and residential space.
The 800 block of East Johnson is currently home to the densest collection of shops and restaurants in the neighborhood. So this cut-through aims to build on existing success but also spark further energy for the area.
The Washburn Place extension aims to inject the East Johnson Street commercial area with more pedestrian-friendly spaces (the spaces where people love to shop and relax). Buildings along the extended Washburn Place will not exceed three stories and façade faces will vary frequently to give the feeling of an organically-created and human-scaled storefront experience.
The concept is inspired* by a small street in Istanbul's Karaköy neighborhood:
The Washburn Place extension aims to create a cozy, pedestrian-centered experience with commercial space on the ground floors and residential space on the second and third floors. Trees and other plantings, along with lighting, would further create a protected and comfortable space. In the warm months, tables and chairs will fill the street outside the restaurants and cafes. This is a place you will want to wander into and stay for a while.
Protecting the Neighborhood
There are two final important points to address: Density and maintaining buildings of various ages and repair.
This commercial district deserves a balanced density. Certainly there is room for more people and more commercial space, but buildings beyond three stories have no place here. This project would replace a handful of one and two-story houses/converted houses with two and three-story structures.
It’s also important that this project preserves most of the existing stock of buildings. Quite a few structures along East Johnson Street are sub-divided apartment houses in various stages of neglect. For some of these, it’s time to go. But it’s also important to understand that these structures give many people affordable places to live and run businesses. We do no good for anyone by completely removing all low-rent commercial and residential spaces in the area at once.
So only three existing buildings would be removed, and the project takes advantage of a property along East Gorham already recently demolished because of compromised structural safety. Next door to this now empty lot, the project preserves a small brick house that dates back to the 1870’s.
Certainly the hope is that this project spurs further redevelopment for the commercial district. But I think a lot of that in the near term would come in the form of rehabilitating and repurposing existing structures along East Johnson Street. Or, when more existing structures do give way to brand new construction, it will take place gradually, maintaining a spectrum of building ages in the area.
Madison's Next Great Street
Extending Washburn Place a block south takes advantage of a commercial district ready to flourish. A significant influx of residents to the neighborhood will build new commercial demand. And the specific location presents the chance to build a pedestrian-friendly mid-block pass-through while maintaining the diversity of structures in the area.
The result: A small but significant project that could drive more customers to existing businesses, bring in new businesses, build a more pedestrian-friendly environment and make a big positive impact on the neighborhood.
And in the end, Madison gains its next great street.
*thank you to Instagram users @bilgetgc, @jilpardo, @justin.s.ahn and @reyhanozduran for the inspiration