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Madison’s Central Park stuck at crossroads (UPDATE)

A rendering shows an aerial view of Madison’s proposed Central Park, which is divided by railroad tracks. Madison wants the state to open a crossing at Few Street to allow a central entrance point for the park. (Rendering courtesy of the city of Madison)

A rendering shows an aerial view of Madison’s proposed Central Park, which is divided by railroad tracks. Madison wants the state to open a crossing at Few Street to allow a central entrance point for the park. (Renderings courtesy of the city of Madison)

By Paul Snyder

Madison’s only Central Park development plan hinges on the state letting the city open a pedestrian crossing over the railroad at Few Street.

At the same time, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., which operates the railroad, is citing safety concerns for its request that the state close three nearby vehicle crossings.

“I know there is a concern about too many open streets right now,” said Alderman Joe Clausius. “But if we can’t get the Few Street crossing, it would be more frustration and us basically heading back to the drawing boards.”

The city has, in one way or another, spent decades at the Central Park drawing board. The latest development and expansion plan for the project, estimated at $18 million, was to be presented to the Madison Common Council on Tuesday night.

Mark Olinger, the city’s director of planning and development, said the plan that was to be introduced to the city Tuesday is centered on opening a pedestrian crossing at Few Street to give park-goers a central access point to the approximately 6-acre park, which will include a great lawn, performance area, skate park and market.

But an in-depth city review of the plan likely will wait until the state Office of the Commissioner of Railroads votes on the city petition to open the Few Street crossing.

The state hearing is scheduled for June, which is when Wisconsin & Southern will make its case to close vehicle crossings at Brearly, Livingston and Blount streets.

“There are 12 crossings located within a half-mile of the proposed park,” said Ken Lucht, a Wisconsin & Southern spokesman. “This creates a lot of safety concerns for us, considering this park is going to be attracting hundreds of thousands of people per year.”

Lucht said the railroad does not officially oppose the city’s request for the Few Street crossing.

But Joe Sensenbrenner, a member of the Central Park Design and Implementation Task Force, said the railroad commissioner’s decision on closing the vehicle crossings could weigh heavily on the decision to open the pedestrian crossing.

The decision, he said, is expected to come three to six months after the June hearing.

If the state rejects the Few Street crossing, Central Park loses its main entrance. Madison does not have an alternative.

“I don’t think it hurts us not to have another one,” Olinger said. “If you’re going to do a project like this, you need to lead with your best program, and this is our best one.”

Wisconsin & Southern is open to compromising with the city, Lucht said. But that would mean closing some of the 12 crossings.

“A lot of people think we’re just trying to decrease access to the other side of the isthmus,” he said. “That’s not true, and I would point out if one closes, there are still 11 other crossings to get to the other side of the park.”

But for now, the city is focused on one crossing, Clausius said.

“If we don’t get Few Street,” he said, “I think we’d all be disappointed.”

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