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PANEL DISCUSSION

Aaron Olver, the managing director of University Research Park, said that the park's plan for a new urban neighborhood would facilitate collaboration among its tenants.

Exact Sciences is not just breaking ground on its new corporate headquarters on Tuesday afternoon: The major biotechnology firm is also breaking ground on a new look for the west-side Madison research and technology park that it has called home since 2009.

Since its creation in 1984, the University Research Park — a campus that provides a home for startups, biotechnology companies, law firms and nonprofits — has had a design defined by a sprawling prairie landscape, peppered with low-profile office buildings set back far from its streets.

But for the past four years, the board of trustees for the 255-acre campus nestled between Mineral Point Road, Tokay Boulevard and Whitney Way has been working on a strategic plan that embraces a new urbanist look: one with mixed-use buildings, amenities like restaurants and gyms, and an emphasis on walking and biking.

According to URP leaders, the new Exact Sciences headquarters at 441 Charmany Dr. will hopefully be the anchor of a small pocket of urban development.

"This project will feel different from other projects in the past. The building will be more oriented toward the street. There will be a smaller setback. It will be more urban in form," said Aaron Olver, the managing director of the URP.

"It’s a modern building that I think fits very much with the Research Park’s plans … with buildings being approachable and walkable and very much about collaboration," said Scott Larrivee, the corporate affairs manager of Exact Sciences.

The new five-story building will connect with Exact Sciences' existing research and development facility down the street at 501 Charmany Dr., and provide 138,000 square feet of office space. The project is slated to be finished by 2020, according to Larrivee.

More specifics of the building design will be revealed at the groundbreaking at 1 p.m., when company officials and the project's developer, Findorff & Son, will provide illustrations and an augmented reality model of the project.

While Larrivee said he couldn't reveal the building's capacity prior to the groundbreaking, he added that "when you have that many people in one place, you start to want to have amenities around."

The University Research Park's current design has been in part defined by a set of restrictive covenants — a set of contractually binding rules regarding use of property — that founders with the University of Wisconsin System signed with surrounding community and neighborhood associations.

"The communities and neighborhoods wanted us to be deliberately park-like. That was the trend in zoning throughout the post-war period throughout the '80s," said Olver.

Since the 1990s, a new school of design has emerged: New urbanism, defined by amenity-rich neighborhoods that are pedestrian-friendly and that include a mix of retail, office and residential use.  Earlier this year, the URP updated its covenants to allow the park to embrace those design values. 

Olver said the change is necessary to foster more community among the park's tenants. The park, he said, needs places where people can gather or have chance encounters, whether it be at a coffee shop or picking up children from day care.

Olver stressed that the plan isn't to give the entirety of the research park an overhaul. He said there are many positives to the park's current design, such as "the prairies, the sensitivity to ecology, the beautiful green spaces."

The new design will be implemented with infill development.

"We’re not going to change the park or what’s great about it," he said. "We’re trying to enable infill in the places that make sense, and create pockets where there are places and activity centers."

The major pocket of that development would be on the land near the corner of the park by Whitney Way and Mineral Point Road, with the new Exact Sciences facility serving as an anchor. The hub would also potentially feature construction of a new roadway.

Olver said that the URP's board had no fixed timeline for building out its pocket of urban development. He said that once the new Exact Sciences headquarter is well underway, the park will start courting potential partners to bring amenities to the area. 

He said he's especially excited about the potential for a coffee shop. It's the one amenity he personally craves the most, and the one he's heard the most demand for from tenants. 

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.