Take a stroll along Midland Street, a shady two-block stretch between Fish Hatchery Road and Park Street on the city's near south side.
The mix of apartments and single-family homes, most with porches out front and garages behind, seems right out of the New Urbanism planning book. If you were going to create an affordable, walkable neighborhood, it's already there.
Mature trees form a canopy over the area, providing relief from the 40,000 daily commuters who speed down the busy streets that bookend this stretch of Midland.
"It's a sweet spot, kind of tucked away but close to just about everything," says Matthew Simmerman, 26, a saxophonist who recently signed a lease for a two-story house at 901 Midland St. with his girlfriend, Sarah Pigo, a graphic designer.
But one of the first pieces of mail to arrive at the couple's new address was from the city, telling residents about plans for a new UW Health clinic at the long-vacant Bancroft Dairy site just north of their street. The proposal would raze eight residential properties along Midland and Fish Hatchery, while also removing the rusting and abandoned industrial facility.
In place of the existing housing: some 360 parking spaces to serve a new Wingra Family Medical Center and offices for the UW Medical Foundation proposed for a portion of the dairy site.
"Honestly, I can't believe anyone would consider taking down all those houses and trees," says Simmerman, whose front door is directly across from the development site.
The demolition is central, however, to a plan from the Wausau-based Ghidorzi Companies for a $17 million, four-story building with 76,800 square feet of office space. Ghidorzi is also seeking $1.5 million in city tax incremental financing (TIF) to offset the costs of a three-level parking ramp fronting the corner of Midland and Fish Hatchery.
The former Bancroft Dairy site has been vacant since 2004 and remains one of the bigger eyesores in the Bay Creek Neighborhood, on a highly visible south- side corner. The 3.3-acre parcel is considered key to the long-discussed revitalization of the Park Street corridor.
So far, the project has been stalled at the city Urban Design Commission, where commissioners are dickering with the UW and its developer over the number of driveways and the lack of any discernible front entrance to the auto-friendly layout. The panel has pushed for putting some of the parking underground, a request the developer says is too costly given the environmental contamination on the site.
"Members don't have any problem with the look of the building," says commission Chairman Dick Wagner. "It's more about the site issues and how it would relate to any future development there."
Another meeting is scheduled Wednesday, Sept. 7, before the UDC, with the project scheduled to go before the city Plan Commission on Sept. 19.
Longtime neighborhood activist Ron Shutvet says the issue isn't just parking, but the vision for his beloved south side. He fears the desire for any kind of redevelopment is driving a flawed plan that will leave much of the property still vacant and turn existing greenspace into concrete.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the Wingra Clinic," says Shutvet, 63, a retired geotechnical engineer. "But they're taking barely a third of the site and the footprint for the parking is almost twice as big as the clinic."
The proposal as drafted also conflicts with a 2006 land-use plan for the area, which calls for maintaining and even expanding the housing along Midland and elsewhere in the Bay Creek Neighborhood.
But Shutvet is fighting some powerful forces at a time when the city is under pressure to expand its property tax base. Moreover, with the weak economy there is legitimate concern that if the clinic doesn't go forward the site could remain undeveloped for years.
"The problem is these health care guys are the only ones with any money to do anything right now," says south-side landlord and past City Council candidate Duane Steinhauer.
The UW and its developer do enjoy the support of District 13 Ald. Sue Ellingson and many south-side business leaders.
"It's not perfect and I know the neighborhood wants a more walkable, welcoming feel," says Ellingson. "But frankly, they're not a lot of developers coming along these days willing to make a $17 million investment."
In the city's competitive health care market, UW Health has been looking to grow business at the Wingra clinic from 20,000 to 30,000 visits annually. Last year, it put out requests for proposals for sites between the Beltline and the Park Street/Fish Hatchery intersection. A dozen responses came back, including proposals for the Labor Temple site and land behind the now closed Thorstad Chevrolet.
A UW real estate team scored the proposals and this spring decided to go with a plan from the Ghidorzi Companies, a family-owned firm headed by Chuck Ghidorzi, father of ex-Badger football standout Chris, who also works for the company.
"We wanted to preserve our clinic presence on the south side but also capture some of that commuter traffic coming downtown," explains Alan Fish, the UW's vice chancellor for facilities.
The plan under consideration would take 39,000 of the dairy site's 104,000 square feet while incorporating roughly another 2 acres from the house demolitions. The rest of the site would be planted with grass and marketed for a second-phase development by Clark Street Development, the Chicago-based real estate investment firm that purchased the dairy property for $1.1 million in 2008 from a division of Dean Foods.
The prominent "flatiron" corner has been identified as a possible hotel site to serve families of patients at the nearby hospitals or visitors to the UW campus. To date, no developers have been willing to take the plunge.
"We're looking hard for a buyer; know anybody?" says local real estate attorney Bill White, who has been working with Clark Street.
Curiously, there were no public discussions about possibly moving the Wingra Clinic from its present location at 2202 S. Park St. across the street to the city-owned Villager Mall. The mall has continued to struggle with vacancies and an empty parking lot despite some $10 million in city investment through its Community Development Authority.
It's also unclear why Ghidorzi did not choose to use more of the dairy site rather than spend upwards of $1 million to purchase eight residential buildings that are currently occupied, save for one overgrown house off High Street.
The Ghidorzi firm, respected for doing quality development elsewhere in the state, has been reluctant to release many financial details other than the public filings available on the city website.
"Our development team has done its due diligence on the project, which includes cost of land, ability to develop the land, who is a willing seller and at what price and how the site functions for the designed purpose," says spokeswoman Margaret Ghidorzi.
The properties to be razed are assessed for property tax purposes at a combined $1.3 million, according to city records. They include a pair of 1960s-era brick apartments in addition to a couple of neatly clipped single-family homes.
Three of the properties are owned by Oregon landlord Jerry Thiel, who back in the day raised his own family at 910 Midland St., one of the buildings now slated to come down. But he says the neighborhood has become "more transient" and is badly in need of redevelopment.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," says Thiel, who declined to offer sales details but maintains he isn't being paid the assessed tax value. "The way I see it, this is my contribution to finally getting something done over there and getting rid of that eyesore."
For the most part, the housing units are in decent shape and appear well-maintained.
"You might not know it from the outside, but this place is really nice inside," says Johnny Vicente, a UW student and cook at Samba Brazilian Grille, whose rented house at 906 Midland is facing the wrecking ball. "I hope we don't get forced out."
For more than a decade, Madison has talked about revitalizing the South Park Street corridor.
Neighborhood meetings have been held, land-use plans drafted and concept drawings produced. In 2004, the city purchased the Villager Mall and has since built a new public library on what had been a crumbling asphalt parking lot.
In 2006, the City Council approved the Wingra Creek Market Study, which called for multifamily housing in the parking lot on Fish Hatchery that formerly served milk trucks at the dairy. That plan also identified the corner triangle as an appropriate site for residential development.
City planning department officials in a recent memo acknowledged the conflicts between the UW Health proposal and the Wingra study. They also warn the demolition of existing homes will likely create a precedent for removing the rest of the housing on Midland Street, much of it owned by Dean Health Systems, whose own clinic is just a block away.
Still, planning unit director Brad Murphy says the overall benefits of the project — including a potential of 100 new jobs, an expanded tax base and momentum for future development — outweigh any loss of housing. The building would be owned by the for-profit Ghidorzi Companies, which would pay property taxes, and leased back to UW Health.
Ironically, the proposal to replace homes with parking comes as the UW has teamed with Meriter Health Systems, St. Mary's Hospital and Madison Gas & Electric to form a nonprofit to pursue more "workforce housing" in the adjacent Greenbush neighborhood, home to two of the city's three hospitals. Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz will help lead that effort as a consultant.
Workforce housing is a term popular today among urban planners and affordable housing advocates. It generally means housing aimed at moderate-income people who otherwise couldn't afford to live near their place of employment.
Meriter Foundation President Fran Petonic says all the entities involved see a need for attractive and affordable housing for the growing number of health care workers and other workers in the neighborhood.
"I don't know if we're looking exclusively at new construction but there is a feeling we can do a lot better than what is there," she says.
Longtime affordable housing advocate Bill Perkins admits it's a challenge. While not speaking directly about the Wingra Clinic project, he says it has become very difficult to develop workforce housing in the current economic climate.
"No question Madison needs more housing that is affordable to working people, located closer to their jobs," he says. "We just need to be sure we're moving forward toward that goal and not moving backward."
Middleton-based Silverstone Partners at one point did propose 63 apartments for the surface parking lot across Fish Hatchery from the dairy buildings. But the plan fell through when the developer failed to secure federal housing tax credits.
South-side business owners, meanwhile, are generally behind the UW Health proposal.
"I'll miss the trees, but I'm afraid that old dairy might be there another 10 years if this clinic doesn't go forward," says Marc Wolfman, owner of Insty Prints at 1112 S. Park St., directly adjacent to the proposed development.
Lindsey Lee, owner of Cargo Coffee across from the Copp's grocery on South Park, has been one of the project's biggest supporters despite its conflicts with the neighborhood land-use plan he helped draft.
"This project isn't perfect but it's one hell of an improvement over what's there now," says Lee, who participated in the Wingra market study and says the Ghidorzi proposal complies with the spirit if not the letter of the plan.
"With the closure of Thorstad (Chevrolet) and the uncertainty of the economy with pending cuts from state government, the future of Park Street is in real doubt," he warns.
Steinhauer agrees something needs to happen at the dairy site but is also concerned about the growing number of medical facilities around town.
"If something ever happens in Washington with the way we get our health care, Madison could take a real hit," he says.
UW Health is pursuing another new clinic, under a lease arrangement similar to the Ghidorzi plan, on the former Erdman properties at Whitney Way and University Avenue on the west side. It has also purchased land at the American Center on the east side for a potential multi-clinic complex.
Competitor Meriter has been on a building binge of its own, with a new clinic in DeForest and another in Monona scheduled to open in October. In 2008, it opened a clinic on McKee Road, a building that sits alone on the city's far west side.
To Midland Street resident Everette Steele, however, the worry isn't the overbuilding of medical facilities but the pending changes to his neighborhood.
"We've got woodpeckers and hawks up in those woods," says Steele, preparing to pedal off on his bicycle. "It's kind of a little nature preserve in here."
Editor's note: Since this story was first posted, it has been updated to explain the property tax impact of the Wingra Clinic proposal.