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Proposed agreement would preserve opportunity for pedestrian bridge over John Nolen Drive
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Proposed agreement would preserve opportunity for pedestrian bridge over John Nolen Drive

McGrath Property Group proposal

Madison planners and architects from John Nolen to Frank Lloyd Wright have long dreamed of physically linking Madison’s downtown to the shoreline of Lake Monona, and a creative agreement between the city and state could help that dream become a possibility.

Under the proposed agreement, the city would swap property with the state and gain permission from the property owners at 151 E. Wilson St. to let pedestrians and cyclists cross their property to access a pedestrian bridge over John Nolen Drive to Law Park, if such a project materializes in the future.

The property is slated for development as a high-rise apartment complex, and a driveway to the underground parking facility at the property is currently approved for East Wilson Street. Madison city engineer Rob Phillips said moving the entrance to the lake-facing side of the property would mean a foot and bike path could run through the property without impacting the current design. 

Additionally, the city would exchange with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation some “unusable” property at Central Park, near railroad tracks and the skate park, for state-owned land behind 151 E. Wilson St.

Phillips stressed that though all parties have tentatively agreed to the deal, the resolution is a work in progress and an approval from the City Council at its Tuesday meeting does not signify a green light for building the path or the bridge.

“What we’re trying to do is preserve an opportunity to cross the rail corridor and John Nolen Drive,” Phillips said.

An overpass for pedestrians and cyclists in this location would reduce the need for foot traffic across the busy and confusing intersection of John Nolen Drive and East Wilson, South Blair and Williamson streets, which also includes a state-owned railroad right-of-way. That intersection is being evaluated in conjunction with a city-led study to look at alternatives for Blair Street and John Nolen Drive.

If the agreement is approved, the Madison-based McGrath Property Group would permit the city to use the East Wilson Street property to access the bridge. The state has determined that the land needed for rear access at 151 E. Wilson St. would not be needed for railroad purposes. 

Attempts to reach McGrath representatives were unsuccessful.

Phillips said he is also working on a substitute resolution that would include a second city-owned property north of the Beltline near the dead end of Emil Street in the land exchange. A rail corridor runs through this property and was included in the city as a "mistake" when the city purchased the abandoned rail corridor for the Cannonball Bike Path, Phillips said.

The City Council will review the agreement Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in room 201 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd.

The proposed resolution has no fiscal impact, although a pedestrian bridge would be pricey.

Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, emphasized that such a project would be expensive, complicated and would require years of input, but could greatly benefit downtown Madison.

“When it’s all said and done, this represents a tremendous opportunity of public access not only for a significant pedestrian and bicycle bridge or overpass, but to the more grand proposals for a park extension over John Nolen Drive,” Verveer said.

The potential overpass would also align with the city’s approved 2012 downtown plan, which recommends that the city “expand and enhance public access and recreational opportunities to and along the downtown lakefronts.” The plan also calls to redevelop Law Park, an underutilized green space that has undergone several unsuccessful planning efforts.

“It really could have a tremendous impact on our long term goals of improving pedestrian and bike access to Law Park and Lake Monona from the downtown, and frankly conversely connecting the two whether you’re coming on foot or bike from the lake,” Verveer said.

The idea of an overpass is not new.

When residents of luxury condominiums next door to the proposed McGrath property tried to stop approval of the project in February 2014, they proposed buying the property and donating it back to the city for a park and pedestrian-bicycle bridge over John Nolen Drive. McGrath’s $20 million project would replace the long vacant three-story state office building between a pair of condominium buildings at the base of King Street.

John Nolen Drive provides approaching drivers sweeping views of the city’s skyline and Lake Monona, but it also limits pedestrian and bicyclist access to the lake’s edge — a problem urban planners have responded to with elaborate solutions.

In his 1911 book "Madison: A Model City," John Nolen called for a terraced “Grand Mall” stairway leading from the Capitol to a “Great Esplanade” stretching over a mile along the lakefront

Frank Lloyd Wright had the same thought as Nolen when he proposed what eventually became the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. While that major city undertaking offers better views of the lake, it still doesn’t offer shoreline access apart from a little known stairway and elevator.

Most recently, the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup proposed its “Nolen Waterfront Vision” plan that would connect the waterfront of Lake Monona to the Capitol Square, add seven acres to Law Park and address the congested Blair-Williamson interchange.

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