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Chris Rickert: Madison: City with a plan (or several)
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Chris Rickert: Madison: City with a plan (or several)

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Chicago is the city that works. New York is the city that never sleeps. Madison, it seems to me, is the city that plans.

The Downtown public market/hotel/(used-to-be) train station. Revitalizing the Old University Avenue corridor. City-adopted plans for about a fifth of Madison’s approximately 120 neighborhoods. And the latest: A proposed esplanade with parks, paths, public art and other amenities between John Nolen Drive and Lake Monona that hearkens back to Nolen’s original plan 100 years ago.

Whether such ideas start with the city or private groups, their success depends on many factors. But in my experience, there are at least as many collecting dust on a shelf somewhere or in some kind of permanent limbo as being put into practice. I’ve always thought it must be nice to be one of those city architectural and design consultants, whose profits are limited not to what is, but to all that might have been.

So, for instance, imagine all the wasted time and effort that went into the $88 million proposal to build a new Central Library, hotel and retail development, which fell apart amid a disagreement between the developer and the city over money. Or the plan for a Downtown public market and hotel, which is still a go but which I have grave doubts about given the actions of Gov. Scott Walker, high-speed-rail murderer.

Central Park might appear to be the biggest recent boondoggle.

The vision for this two square blocks on the Near East Side first surfaced more than 40 years ago, was dropped for about three decades and resurfaced in 2000. Eleven years later the summer view from Ingersoll Street — which would be smack in the middle of the park — consists of a few immature trees and a scrubby lawn. That’s despite what city planning and development director Mark Olinger said were four distinct plans for the property (a fifth is in the works), who knows how much city staff time, and planning costs in the six figures, though most of that isn’t city money.

Park Board member and head of the Central Park Design and Implementation Task Force Bill Barker defended the city’s approach to Central Park for the three or four years he’s been involved, as well as the importance of Madison’s planning in general.

“In Madison, everybody gets to come out and participate,” he said. “I think that’s one of our strengths is that we do take our time.” And while it can be expensive and drawn-out, “look at the results. We live in one of the best cities of the country.”

Similarly, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and the man challenging him for his job, former Mayor Paul Soglin, said the time and effort put into the front ends of big neighborhood- and city-altering projects — even the ones that don’t work out — are not excessive.

“Not if it’s a growing, vibrant city,” Soglin said.

Such forethought “is part of Madison’s nature,” Cieslewicz said, “and for the most part, that’s a good thing.”

On Feb. 22, Madison will get a new planning and development director. Not surprisingly, Steve Cover thinks Madison is a pretty awesome place to live and work.

But fail to plan for a city’s land use, business environment and housing, and “then you’re going to have a city that’s wandering,” he said.

Still, Cover said he is a proponent of regularly reviewing city plans to keep them fresh and to force their backers to decide if it’s time to cut their losses.

“Sometimes they’re a little pie in the sky,” he said. “The focus on being realistic is so important.”

Pie in the sky. That’s sounds about right. Madisonians are an idealistic, hopeful bunch, and our plans reflect that — occasionally to their detriment.

I just hope that in a lot fewer than another 11 years, Central Park will be more than a pretty picture drawn up by a consultant and that we aren’t still talking about how great it would be to have a public market Downtown — either because we can actually visit the market or because it’s a concept that has long since been scrapped.

Madison’s a great place to live, but sometimes it can be such a tease.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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