It is a walkable commercial and residential strip that embodies the cityscapes lauded as new urbanism by city planners. It’s also the main drag in a neighborhood that’s home to many of the city’s most outspoken activists. So when the aging infrastructure of Williamson Street on Madison’s east side is scheduled for a rebuild, you’d better believe its citizens will have their say. Speak they have, and managed the unlikely feat of getting the street scheduled for narrowing.
But some say that’s not enough.
Property owners, residents, bicyclists, environmentalists — after finagling a year’s postponement of the project that involved getting the state to agree to delay replacing dicey century-old lead water pipes — want the project postponed another year to allow fine-tuning of the road reconstruction plan to make it friendlier to pedestrians, bicyclists and the environment.
City staff and public works officials are saying the plan has gone as far as it can go, but Ald. Marsha Rummel says she hasn’t closed the door yet on asking for a delay when the $9 million plan goes to the City Council for approval on Dec. 14.
“My tendency is to go forward, but I’m sympathetic to wanting to have the best street we can,” she says.
Since the presentation of a preliminary plan in October, Williamson Street activists have met with growing urgency with city officials to fine-tune a blueprint that will polish the cachet of a blue-collar-turned-counter-culture street that has come to be one of Madison’s most charismatic business strips.
As the influence of upscale redevelopment has radiated from the nearby downtown area, Williamson Street is seeing its own spate of new building construction and new business starts. Neighborhood activists eager to make the best of the street’s renaissance are calling for an even more pedestrian-friendly environment, with more generous streetside terraces to accommodate café seating and mature trees, and traffic islands and color-coded street crossings to help shoppers navigate the street. They also want Williamson to be a laboratory for high-tech strategies to make city streets more sustainable.
Under the plan endorsed last week by the city’s Board of Public Works, six blocks of Williamson Street, from Blount to Baldwin streets, will be whittled down from 48 feet to 44 as part of a project that also includes resurfacing the street from Baldwin to Thornton Avenue. “It’ll work, but it will be tighter,” David Dryer, the city’s director of traffic engineering says of narrowing the street.
It’s not unusual for the city to narrow vehicle traffic lanes on a street through a “reallocation” of street width to allow more space for bicycles or to accommodate pedestrians at crossings, he says. But the planned narrowing of Williamson Street is an actual reduction of the blacktop on an arterial street moving traffic through the near east side that is barely standard width now. It would bring the width of the street down from 48 feet to allow an additional two feet of terrace on each side, paring the vehicular traffic lanes from the standard 11 feet wide to 10 feet in each direction and the parking lanes on each side of the street from 13 feet to 12.
Dryer predicts the narrower vehicle lanes won’t have much impact on the flow of traffic for the 18,000 to 22,500 vehicles a day moving along different segments of Williamson Street. “What it is going to do is put more pressure on parking maneuvers and the hardy bicyclists who use the street,” he says. “It’s a trade-off. The neighborhood wanted the wider terrace and the benefits that provided.”
Proponents of the narrower street say it would bring that segment of Williamson back to what it was before a widening project decades ago. They speak of a more intimate street, with the movement of vehicles slowed by a smaller scale and traffic islands.
Narrowing the street was a big win accomplished during the project delay, says Lindsey Lee, owner of Ground Zero Coffee, who serves on the board of the Greater Williamson Area Business Association. “It’ll be better for businesses, that’s for sure,” says Lee, one of a dozen people from the Williamson area to speak on the project to the Board of Public Works in the City Council chambers on Dec. 1.
The Greater Williamson Area Business Association endorses moving the project forward, while the Marquette Neighborhood Association backs a year’s delay to better fulfill such “ideals of new urbanism” as burying utility lines and controlling storm water, but Lee says there’s a range of opinion in the organizations.
Not all property owners even agree a narrowed street is a good idea. “I believe we’re going down the wrong road,” says John Martens, a commercial property owner on the street who has helped restore neighboring historic properties. “Whether you like it or not, the function of this street is to act as a street.” The plan would make Williamson less able to handle its traffic load and shrink the corridor for bicyclists down to a dangerously narrow area, Martens says.
Cyclists are split over the plan. The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin strongly opposes the street narrowing, saying it would push bicyclists into the “door zone” where they are vulnerable to collisions when motorists open their doors. Other local cyclists banded together to go on record in favor of the project, saying in a more nuanced vision of the rebuilt street that wider terraces and bigger trees would slow traffic, making it more comfortable for bicyclists.
How long it would take for the leafy tunnel of mature trees that scenario envisions to materialize depends on how many trees the city takes down in connection with the street reconstruction project, says Williamson Street neighbor John Coleman. He has been alerting the neighborhood about which of the street’s mature trees — many 10 inches in diameter and a few 20 inches or more around — are targeted for removal in connection with the project. A total of 30 trees are tagged to be taken down, 22 of which are in poor condition, city officials say.
“It started with 50 trees, and with pressure from the neighborhood we brought it down to 30,” says Coleman, who challenges the city’s contention that trees struggling after being bruised by traffic, strangled in the compacted dirt of terraces or slashed by pruning for overhead utility wires can’t be saved. “There definitely is an opportunity to save more large trees,” he says. He’s hoping the city will demonstrate a new openness to preservation of trees. Historically, he says, they have cleared them out for road projects.
City officials also are being implored to bury utility lines in connection with the Williamson Street reconstruction, an estimated $5 million undertaking that proponents say would not only make the street more attractive, but also help preserve its trees. The project as now planned includes installing underground conduit for power lines, says project manager Jim Wolfe of the city engineering department. But as elsewhere, actual moving of the utility lines would not be done until money is raised through increased property tax revenue, something that typically takes years.
Others are pressing the city even more passionately to re-engineer the street to absorb 25 percent of storm water, up from virtually nothing now. That’s just not practical given the limitations of the street’s paved landscape, City Engineer Rob Phillips says. What’s more, another extension from the state to replace water service lines made of lead is unlikely, he says.
As environmental measures, the project plan includes two bio-vaults, where storm water would be filtered before entering the storm sewer system, and two test locations where trees would be planted in material engineered to increase storm water absorption.
Twink Jan-McMahon, a member of Sustainable Atwood, says that’s not enough. “It’s in these kinds of projects we make the decisions that change the future,” she says, arguing for a delay to research other methods of lessening the environmental impact of the street.
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The Board of Public Works was unconvinced that a delay would accomplish anything. “Staff has spent a lot more time on this than projects of this kind usually get,” says member Lucas Dailey. “We’re really talking diminishing returns at this point.”
Rummel acknowledges that the recession that prompted merchants to plead for delay of the customer-daunting road project a year ago continues scarcely abated, but she is hearing the concerns of city staff loud and clear.
“I’m concerned we would be turning away a very good project in hopes of perfection,” Rummel told her constituents after the public works meeting, only to be chided for not taking “leadership” on sustainability initiatives. “I want to start a conversation on the sustainability of streets,” Rummel said in a later interview. “But I got a strong message from staff that they’re not going to do a whole street with something they’ve never tested.”
Even if the city postpones the project again, is the neighborhood prepared for another round of the kind of nitty-gritty plan crunching that got the street narrowed?
“It’s killing us to stay involved at this level,” says Coleman, the tree activist. But people have to learn to ask for what they want, he counsels. Repeatedly. “Start going to meetings twice a month and the city starts to notice.”