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Rooftop gardens debate grows in Madison

Madison is debating a rooftop garden, like this one in San Franacisco (above) A woman walks past the sculpture "Stele 1" by artist Ellsworth Kelly during a media preview of the new rooftop sculpture garden at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Madison is debating a rooftop garden -- like this one atop the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (above) -- for its central library. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

By Paul Snyder

Rooftop gardens on the new Madison Central Library are seeding debate between residents lobbying for the space and city leaders unwilling to pay for it.

“We never appropriated money for a rooftop garden,” said Alderman Larry Palm, who is a member of the city’s Public Library Board. “I don’t think we’d support taking funds out of the library to pay for them. We’ve heard it could cost up to $2 million to do that. Our thinking with the people that wanted the gardens always was, ‘Yes, but you pay for it.'”

Jane Anne Morris, a member of the Downtown Community Gardens Group, called the notion that the community group should pay for the gardens “insulting.”

The group began lobbying for a rooftop gardens project last year when the plan was to build a new Central Library on West Washington Avenue. She said even though the city changed its plan from building new to reconstructing the existing Central Library on West Mifflin Street, her group still wants rooftop gardens.

And it does not expect to pay for the project.

“We have no intention of fundraising for a city project,” Morris said. “It’s like saying I should have to raise the money for the city to fill potholes on the street in front of my apartment. I’m a taxpayer, and that’s what that money is supposed to pay for.”

Downtown Madison, Morris said, lacks community garden space despite a city policy encouraging that space for residents. If the city is going to say it should have more community gardens, Morris said, it should also be willing to pay for it.

Jeff Scherer, a principal of Minneapolis-based Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle Ltd., said it is too early to speculate whether rooftop gardens will fit into the design of the rebuilt Central Library.

The city’s Library Board on Thursday approved a resolution agreeing to contract with MS&R, which will team with Madison-based Potter Lawson Inc., for the reconstruction’s design work. The Board of Estimates is scheduled to vote on the resolution Monday.

MS&R designed a rooftop garden for the Fayetteville Public Library in Arkansas, but Scherer said there are many design elements for the Madison project that will need public input and consideration and he will not support or oppose any yet.

“I don’t want the process getting confused by getting sidetracked around individual interests too soon,” he said. “It has to be managed in a thoughtful and careful way.”

Scherer will be in Madison on Monday to meet with city leaders and committees. He said he must learn and respect the city’s personality before committing to project timelines and details.

The Library Board on Thursday also approved reducing its budget request for the Central Library project.

Madison’s 2010 budget authorized spending $23 million on the project and projected spending another $14 million in 2011 and 2012 when the plan was still to build a new library.

The Library Board’s budget request for the project is now down to $6.5 million in 2011 and nothing in 2012.

The city has a finite amount of money to work with, Palm said, and should not be expected to pay for a rooftop gardens project.

“I can assure you we don’t have the money we need for a lot of things that people want for the library,” he said.

Alderwoman Judy Compton said she needs detailed designs before she could consider supporting rooftop gardens on the library.

“It’s a lovely belief that it could happen,” she said, “but it’s just not realistic.”

That will not deter the community gardens group from encouraging the city and design team to work rooftop space into designs. Madison has a responsibility to pay for that work, Morris said.

“None of us are private developers,” she said. “None of us are looking to get hired. We don’t want special treatment and we don’t want private favors. It’s city policy, a city building and it should be a city project.”


  1. Not to mention the cost savings that a rooftop community garden will bring to the library. Insulation, water catchment, healthy people (see, etc to name a few fiscal benefits.

  2. Todd Farnsworthy

    Let’s be clear. Is the City considering addition of a green roof (extensive or intensive) to the project? Or is the City considering implementing some form of publicly-accessible community gardening area to be located on the roof of the building? These are polar extremes to what a ‘green’ roof might be.

    If pursued, the easiest/cheapest option is a non-accessible extensive green roof with a thin soil profile, alpine-style plantings & minimal aesthetic appeal. The functional aspects of this type of roof (longer membrane lifespan, reduced heating/cooling loads) have been proven over the last five decades of implementation across the US & Europe (mostly Germany.)

    The next step up is an intensive roof, which is more costly but also more attractive. Deeper soil allows more plant variety and aesthetic interest, in addition to the long-term energy reduction. With more interesting surroundings, the roof then could be occupied and a variety of pedestrian-friendly outdoor spaces could be created.

    The final option could be a community garden on the roof, which is a whole different animal. Lots of soil depth would be needed to support vegetable growth, which would affect structural design. Access to water would be critical to plant growth and would definitely affect project cost, complexity & risk. Speaking of risk, allowing citizens access to the roof for gardening would be risky, as would having untrained individuals trying to cultivate soil above a waterproof membrane. One accidental shovel strike could turn into a seven-figure problem. The insurance aspect alone might be enough to eliminate this as an option.

    In general, DR ought to be providing more definitive and objective information for consideration rather than potentially inflammatory excerpts.

  3. janeanne morris

    Re: community gardens on the rooftop of the soon to-be renovated central public library. First, there are many designs available for modular, lightweight raised beds for rooftop gardens. Many require not so much soil, like 12-14″ for most crops. In addition, there are now available many “special” lightweight soils designed especially for rooftops. A thick membrane that spans the whole roof is simply unnecessary, and the weight issue a non-starter,considering that the lightweight raised beds can be aligned along existing structural features of the roof.
    Re: public access. We have rooftop parking ramps all over town, which already have to deal with issues of (frankly) inebriated people at late hours lumbering in to retrieve their cars. Sometimes empty glass bottles (formerly containing alcohol) get thrown off the roofs. (I know, as I live across the street from a downtown parking ramp.) Somehow the city is now dealing with this problem. A handful of daytime gardeners and others enjoying rooftop greenery is hardly a more challenging problem.
    The Downtown Community Gardens Group has a short powerpoint presentation that discusses these and other issues. There’s a wheelbarrow-full of examples from around the world. Madison could join the parade, instead of being a backwater.
    jane anne morris

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