Prior to becoming one of Madison’s four waterfront community parks, the area now known as James Madison Park was an important home to boat building and an active Lake Mendota ice harvesting operation.
It began to take shape as a park when the city purchased land and created Conklin Park, named after James Conklin’s Ice House business, in 1939, but it was not until 1963 when the city expanded the area along Gorham Street that James Madison Park began to form.
“It’s been a community destination for a very long time,” said Sarah Lerner, city of Madison landscape architect and project manager.
Now, the city is looking toward the next 15 to 20 years of the downtown park, located at 614 E. Gorham St. Its potential future is mapped out in a master planning document. For the past year, the city has been studying the park, soliciting public input and developing a long-term planning guide.
Today, the 12.82-acre property features a large open space, basketball courts, a sand volleyball court, flat turf area for hula hooping, dog walking and frisbee tossing, and a medium-sized children's playground. There is also a small beach and a waterfront path that runs the length of the park.
Six buildings in the park are designated as city of Madison landmarks and are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Gates of Heaven synagogue and the Bernard Hoover Boathouse.
Broadly, the master plan focuses on significant improvements to the current park shelter and shoreline and does not make major changes to program elements or recreational facilities.
But in what has become a divisive recommendation, the plan calls for expanding the large open space on the western half of the park by relocating the current surface parking lot to along East Gorham Street.
Other significant changes outlined in the master plan include:
- A new park shelter
- Interpretative boardwalk with educational signage
- Replacing the concrete sea wall with a mix of living shoreline, terraced seating and vegetated riprap, which is a combination of rock and native vegetation meant to secure the shoreline
- Five scenic overlooks, fishing access, an expanded beach, new docks
- Full ADA accessibility to all public buildings
- Natural stormwater management features such as emergent wetland and bioinfiltration basins
- Improved pedestrian crossings
Ald. Ledell Zellers, District 2, requested a park master plan as part of the capital budget following discussions with the community in 2013 over improvements to the shelter, which was identified in the current master plan engagement process as a top priority. She said shoreline concerns and the growth in the downtown population influenced the need for a master plan.
“We’re pretty light on parks in the downtown area, Zellers said. “We have to make the most of the ones that we have. That was a goal of the plan.”
The existing 2,500-square-foot concrete park shelter was built in the Brutalism style, includes bathrooms and showers, an activity room and small concessions area. It lacks visibility from the street, is not energy efficient and fails to meet current zoning code requirements.
According to the master plan, the city received over 1,000 comments on the shelter and its perception as “unwelcoming, unappealing and not sufficiently sized” for community needs.
Under the master plan, the city would build a new park shelter with a large community room, a cafe or concessions, a flexible room for events, a paddle sports vendor, improved bathrooms and a roof garden with swings and hammocks to take in views of Lake Mendota. The design for a new shelter would go through its own review process.
Community engagement, parking concerns
Improving the park shelter was just one of the 38 priorities the city ranked as a part of its comprehensive public engagement process, which included three public meetings, pop-up info sessions in the park, park observations, comment cards, interviews, focus group discussions and an online survey.
The engagement process for the James Madison Park plan was guided by the Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative tool to identify the benefits, burdens and potential unintended consequences of those who would be affected by the master plan. Toriana Pettaway, Madison racial equity coordinator, said the Parks Division utilized the RESJI tool successfully before selecting the design team in 2017.
The analysis is used to facilitate conscious consideration of equity and to examine how communities of color and low-income populations would be affected.
“It is a community park. It doesn’t belong to a resident. It does not belong to a community within a five mile radius,” Pettaway said. “It belongs to a whole city.”
Because James Madison Park is a community park, Lerner said the engagement process was more robust.
“Community parks have unique challenges with master planning,” Lerner said. “To the surrounding neighborhood, they’re local neighborhood parks. But we also need them to provide community facilities that serve the entire city.”
This can lead to conflicting interests, which have been illustrated by the disagreement over the proposed parking in the park and fueled by an opinion column in Isthmus, a response from the city and social media comments.
The master plan proposes to relocate and change the western parking lot into a linear, angled and centralized lot along East Gorham Street to address concerns related to safety, ADA accessibility and to minimize active recreation near Gates of Heaven.
Many residents have written to the city expressing their displeasure at the proposed parking lot, saying that it ruins the natural beauty of the park, does not prioritize green space and is not needed.
“This is a downtown park. If people from other parts of town want to use it, they can park in one of the parking ramps or along the street,” Casey Garhart said in an email to the Board of Park Commissioners.
Parking under the master plan configuration would be more central to the shelter, expanded beach, playground and relocated basketball and volleyball courts. It is also meant to improve safety by reducing “blind corners” and being more visible from the street.
The parking lot would also use permeable pavement, which would assist stormwater management.
Zellers said it would not be “reasonable, practical or fair” to eliminate parking completely and the two-hour street parking located nearby cannot accommodate park users from around the city. Also, Lerner said the Parks Division does not want to require visitors to pay to use the park.
“We don't want to make it a burden for people to pay to use the parks system,” Lerner said.
The Parks Division continues to take public input on the plan. The Board of Park Commissioners postponed a decision on the plan at its meeting Dec. 12. If approved by the City Council, the city would phase construction improvements and their cost as a part of the capital budgeting process.
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