With lingering questions about accessibility, public transit access and potential congestion, a Madison commission Wednesday asked for more information on a proposal to turn State Street into a pedestrian mall most weekends this summer before the body could make a recommendation on the idea.
But members of the Transportation Commission were largely against closing the entire six-block length of State Street for the proposal.
Instead, the commission asked the Central Business Improvement District, or the BID, and city staff to come back with a more detailed proposal, and what the impacts could be, of a temporary pedestrian mall on the three blocks closest to the UW-Madison campus.
In an attempt to aid struggling business owners on State Street, the BID is proposing closing all six blocks of the iconic street to traffic on most Saturdays and Sundays from May through mid-August.
Dubbed “Summer on State,” the proposal would allow restaurants and retailers more space in the sidewalk and terrace areas to place dining tables or display merchandise, while pedestrians could use State Street to walk up and down it without worrying about buses or the other limited vehicles allowed to drive on State Street.
“We need this opportunity to allow our businesses the chance to do more than just survive,” said Tiffany Kenney, executive director of the BID. “We think that we can thrive with this program.”
Metro Transit is “strongly opposed” to closing summer weekend bus access to the upper portion of State Street, or the 100, 200 and 300 blocks, said general manager Justin Stuehrenberg.
Rerouting buses from those blocks would add only a few minutes to ride times, he said, but it could have a ripple effect on the system, such as a bus arriving at a transfer point too late for a rider to catch their next bus.
“It really has a potential to impact the entire network,” Stuehrenberg said.
Metro Transit remains neutral on turning lower State Street — the 400 to 600 blocks — into a temporary promenade because rerouting from those blocks wouldn’t add ride time, he said.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway told the commission she supports a compromise solution where only lower State Street would become a weekend pedestrian mall and buses remain on the upper portion.
But Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, said more of the locally owned businesses are in the 100 to 300 blocks while national chains tend to be on lower State Street closer to UW-Madison and its tens of thousands of students.
The City Council representative for most of Downtown said he supports closing the entire street for the proposal as “recovery has barely begun” from the COVID-19 pandemic and unrest in the area last summer.
“What you have before you, in my estimation, is a lifeline to those of us Downtown that need all the support we can get at this moment in time,” Verveer said.
Normally, staff could approve a street occupancy permit, said city traffic engineer Yang Tao, but the BID’s application was brought to the commission for guidance because of a “significant amount of concerns.”
Ultimately, commission members asked the BID and city staff to come back with answers to several areas of concern, such as how people with disabilities would be able to safely navigate a pedestrian mall and whether there’s enough space for pedestrians and bicyclists to use the road together, while focusing in on just the 400 to 600 blocks of State Street.