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Business development creeps into central park talks

Paul Snyder

If Madison does not commit nearly $1 million in its 2010 budget to a central park project, supporters argue, the development could lose momentum and fall apart.

That’s not such a bad thing, said Mark Bugher, director of University Research Park in Madison.

“The land between East Washington and (Williamson) Street is really of interest to us from a business attraction perspective,” he said of the land tabbed for the park. “You’re coming off a major commercial corridor and feeding right into a vibrant neighborhood in the Willy Street area.

“The area should be the focus of the city’s future development plans.”

University Research Park last year took over 10 sites on East Washington Avenue for startup businesses. To date, four have been leased, and Bugher said he expects the remaining suites to fill up, with expansion in the corridor to follow. It will happen with or without central park, he said.

But with years of park project studies complete and nearly $8.1 million projected for the park in the next four city budgets, it’s too late to question need, said Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc. and chairwoman of the Madison Parks Foundation.

“It’s part of a quality-of-life issue,” she said. “The idea is that to be a truly great place to work, live and play, this is something that can enhance the area.”

Yet Schmitz also said Madison is not struggling with quality of life. With more than 6,000 acres of parkland throughout the city, Madison has plenty of green space.

For now, the city is committed to the central park in the east isthmus area. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s 2010 capital budget proposal includes nearly $1 million for design work and to buy land for the park.

In 2011, the investment increases to $5.4 million for preliminary landscaping and construction work, though Alderwoman Marsha Rummel said most of that money will come from the federal government.

A central park task force is nearing completion of its report on the park’s proposed design, but the city and state still must agree on what to do with active railroad tracks that cut through the targeted park property and whether new pedestrian crossings can be built into the site.

The city cannot afford the estimated $10 million to move the tracks, and asking private contributors to cover that cost and then pay for various park amenities could be too much, Rummel said.

But leaving the tracks in place kills park plans while promoting further business development, said David Mollenhoff, former president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association.

“Saying we have 6,000 acres of park is very different from saying we have enough, particularly for the east isthmus area,” he said. “But size is very important here, and if you have two rail tracks running through, you lose so much.”

Bugher said the area is ripe for new business, but a park and businesses do not have to be mutually exclusive.

“The park would be a nice benefit to a business development district,” he said. “And I think with the wholesale commitment to the park you’re seeing from the city, that’s how it will be.”

But if Madison’s central park amounts to no more than a narrow swath of land with trains passing through, Mollenhoff said, the city might be better served chasing business instead.

“The east isthmus is the most parks-deficient part of the city,” he said. “This is important open space we need. But with the tracks, the critical mass of the park drops to zilch.”

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