The bucolic, sprawling University Research Park on the West Side, home to some of the area’s most illustrious biotech companies, is poised to begin a new era.
The research park is teaming with the Mandel Group of Milwaukee on an ambitious, multi-phase project with 400,000 square feet of new construction, including housing, a hotel, lab/office space, food hall, climbing gym and parking. It marks a major evolution for the 250-acre park, now characterized by modern labs and office buildings surrounded by green spaces and parking lots.
The project, called “Element Collective,” came in response to a research park request for developer proposals and would introduce a more urban environment where office tenants could live, host visitors, eat and recreate, and also provide a new set of amenities for the surrounding area.
“It’s a place to have lunch with a colleague, coffee with an investor, or a drink with a prospective business partner,” park managing director Aaron Olver said. “It will give our employees an option to live, work and play within the URP community without reliance on an automobile. And it will open University Research Park to the community beyond the research park.”
Robert Monnat, senior partner at Mandel Group, declined to share specifics of the proposal until an online neighborhood meeting set for 7 p.m. Nov. 16.
“We are enthusiastic about this project because it allows us to introduce placemaking elements to an environment that needs them so much,” he said. “This is not a typical real estate project on an empty piece of land. Element Collective can make URP so much more desirable for those that work there.”
Ald. Keith Furman, whose 19th District includes the site, has a positive initial reaction.
“I’m excited about the team’s vision to increase the activity and attractiveness of University Research Park and add amenities that could also be used by the surrounding community,” Furman said. “It’s a great location for the mixed-use being proposed. I’m eager to hear feedback from the public on the vision.”
In 1983, When UW-Madison officials laid out their ideas for University Research Park, they envisioned it as a place where buildings would nurture technology transfer from campus research labs with grounds also to include a conference center/hotel complex, retail space and several hundred housing units.
But the mixed uses were later scrapped from the plan.
Instead, most of the research park has been developed based on the original standards that were common in the 1980s, modeled after such leaders as Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Restrictive rules called for wide building setbacks and a park-like appearance. About 20% of the park, more than 50 acres, was given to parking lots.
“It was intended to be low-slung and park-like,” Olver said. “Early on, there were plans to incorporate a hotel and commercial space, but the market wasn’t yet there. Today we are at nearly full occupancy.”
About 140 companies are now located at University Research Park, with the number in flux because of all the startups, Olver said.
Big-name biotech companies — such as stem cell manufacturer Cellular Dynamics International and cancer test developer Exact Sciences Corp. — are tenants. So are dozens of startups, as well as law firms, banks and two child-care centers. The new Exact Sciences headquarters is the first in the park developed under new guidelines, with the building pulled up to the street and a new commitment to walkability and place-making, Olver said.
In October 2018, the UW Board of Regents approved changes to make the research park more “campus-like,” and the research park issued a request for developer proposals to partner on a project. The research park chose the Mandel Group to do the project in spring of 2019.
“The Mandel Group’s 30-year track record in developing mixed-use urban neighborhoods, like The North End in downtown Milwaukee, and their experience bringing food, beverage, and fitness to those communities really stood out,” Olver said.
A preliminary concept shows a multi-story building with 182 apartments, retail space and lobby amenities, and a elevated courtyard above parking along Mineral Point Road.
Next to the housing would be another structure offering the food hall with rooftop venue and climbing gym/fitness center. A multi-story lab/office building with a cafe would be set at the corner of Mineral Point Road and Whitney Way. The food hall would be less oriented to convenience and more to dining experience with local vendors, ambience and a mix of offerings — “a sort of unique food oasis,” Olver said.
In the center of the project, across a community courtyard from the food hall, would be a 120-room hotel with a restaurant, probably in a second phase. Structured parking would be located below the apartments and office building.
“We didn’t start the design until we had done our own research,” Monnat said. “We sent out surveys to all the employees within URP and followed up with focus groups and one-on-one interviews. We’re anxious to have this develop collaboratively, both within the research park constituency as well as the nearby neighborhoods.”
The concept would require creating two new public streets and multi-use paths within the seven-acre project site, and it would be next to a bus rapid transit route planned for Mineral Point Road. Parts of the site must be rezoned and certain elements of the project will require conditional use approvals.
The research park looks forward to the upcoming neighborhood meeting, and depending how the concept evolves, it could break ground in the second half of 2021 with an opening in 2023, Olver said.
“Our overall goal is that URP remains the area’s most successful neighborhood to establish and grow the businesses that will fuel metro Madison’s 21st century economy,” he said. “Job one is to make sure Element Collective succeeds. We think it could catalyze additional opportunities for more infill development, but we’ll let the market guide the future mix and pace.”