Can A Downtown Be Too Lively?

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Madison, capital of the state of Wisconsin, is home not only to a handsome seat of government, but also to the sprawling, lakeside campus of the University of Wisconsin. It’s said that the population of the city grows by a fifth during the school year; the central city and suburbs number about 200,000, and UW Madison alone boasts more than 41,000 students. With its mix of students and government, Madison’s comparable to Quebec City somewhat in scale and feel.

Carfree State Street is arguably the heart and soul of the Madison isthmus; a walkable, vibrant commercial thoroughfare. However, the proliferation of downtown bars and street-party events means that the area’s rowdy university nightlife scene is bumping up against new residential condo construction right around the Capitol. In an era of dead downtowns, is it possible that Madison’s downtown is too lively?

Madison’s downtown is centred on the isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona, the two largest of a group of five. Designed in the 19th century on a grid similar to Washington, DC, and with a limitation on new building height – nothing can be taller than the Capitol dome – the Isthmus is human-scaled, pedestrian- and bike-friendly. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin is in nearby Spring Green, and the city is thus dotted with several Wright designs, notably the lakeside Monona Terrace and its boulevard leading down from the Capitol.

State Street runs diagonally off the Capitol Square, forming a straight corridor to the University of Wisconsin’s lakeside campus. In the 1970s, State Street was designated car-free; only pedestrians, buses, taxis and bicycles are allowed, and all are granted equal traffic status. There’s extensive bike parking all around the core and on-campus; State Street itself employs traffic calming measures such as wide sidewalks lowered until nearly at grade level. It’s a popular and busy commercial thoroughfare, with a mix of restaurants, sidewalk cafés, outlets, chains, bakeries, and more, catering from bohemian student accoutrements to upscale boutiques.

Orpheum Theatre, State Street, Madison, WI.

Orpheum Theatre, State Street. Photo: AJ Kandy.

Since 2000, the Isthmus has seen a building boom around the Capitol Square. Although controversial — some of the buildings come close to obscuring the Capitol dome, much in the same way Montreal’s skyscrapers edge up to the Mountain — it has brought an influx of new residents to the downtown core, reversing the trend of low-density suburban sprawl that characterizes the surrounding area. This population shift has radically altered the demographics of downtown; where only a few years previous it was possible for welfare recipients to be living within the shadow of the seat of government; now wealthy young professionals and empty-nest retirees are taking over the prime real estate. Similarly, the rough-and-tumble nature of State Street has been shaken up by the opening of the Overture Center for the Arts, an extension of the existing museum.

Overture Center For The Arts, State Street, Madison, WI.

Overture Center for the Arts. Photo: Rick Aiello

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As the school term ends and the student population of Madtown returns to their home cities, the situation quiets once again; but come September, the cycle will begin anew. Clashes will erupt over the legendary Halloween Parade, said to bring as many as 100,000 people at once to the downtown core. Urban “returnees” used to the quiet of the suburbs will complain that downtown is too busy, too dirty, too noisy, and they would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those darned kids…

Live, work, or go to school in Madison? Let us know what you think in the comments.

This entry was written by A.J. Kandy , posted on Friday November 24 2006at 03:11 pm , filed under United States and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Can A Downtown Be Too Lively?”

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  • Joe says:

    Wow, how depressing. That glittery, ostentatious, overgrown art museum really wrecks the State Street vibe and the view of the classic, stately capital. Who approved that thing? The only thing missing from it is Robert Schuller and his congregation praying in the lobby. Tear that ugly thing down.