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John Nolen Drive, Blair, Williamson, Wilson intersection

Motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists navigate their way through the busy intersection of John Nolen Drive and Blair, Williamson and Wilson Streets.

The center of Madison remains physically disconnected from the Lake Monona waterfront and that's a big problem for some.

“That disconnection is real and palpable. You can be at city hall and feel like you’re quite a ways from the lake and you're not,” said Eric Knepp, city parks superintendent. “It’s been a challenge for 100 years.”

But now, as the city undertakes a master planning process for Law Park, that could change.

“The disconnection with lake and downtown has been flummoxing generations of Madisonians,” Knepp said. “The Parks Division is honored with the opportunity to solve this problem.”

Madison is starting the process of re-thinking Law Park, located along the Lake Monona shoreline east of Monona Terrace, while also moving forward on a plan that would improve a dangerous intersection.

Meanwhile, a group of private individuals have created a lofty vision for the waterfront that would incorporate John Nolen’s 1909 master plan for the city. If implemented, the vision could affect the city’s plans for the John Nolen Drive and Blair Street corridor and Law Park.  

What’s changing about Law Park?

The small park is located along John Nolen Drive on the edge of Lake Monona. It is currently underutilized and overshadowed by four lanes of traffic and a railroad corridor.

Madison’s 2018 capital budget includes $500,000 over this year and 2019 for a master planning process for the park, which would include an evaluation of site constraints and the feasibility of expanding the park to accommodate the addition a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed boathouse.

Nolen Waterfront

The Madison Community Foundation awarded seed money for an ambitious project that envisions a huge park over John Nolen Drive and a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed boathouse that, if embraced by city policymakers, would likely take decades to come to fruition. At left is Monona Terrace.

What is the Nolen Waterfront Vision?

The “Nolen Waterfront Vision” is a massive design proposal for John Nolen Drive, based on architect John Nolen’s 1909 master plan for the city. It would connect the waterfront of Lake Monona to the Capitol Square, expand Law Park and address the congested intersection of John Nolen Drive, and Blair, Williamson and East Wilson streets.

It creates a nine-acre park by building a raised deck, or land bridge, over John Nolen Drive, a portion of U.S. Highway 151. It includes a boathouse, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1893, to serve as a visitor center.

Is the Nolen Waterfront Vision a city project?

No. The proposal was created by the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup, a pro bono initiative of local design professionals. The project would need to raise millions of dollars to become a reality.

The Madison Design Professionals received a $27,500 grant from the Madison Community Foundation for a feasibility study of the project, which has been completed but not yet publicly released.

Could it be a city project?

Private visions, like the Nolen Waterfront vision, will “add value to the community conversations” as the city reconsiders Law Park, Knepp said. The Nolen Waterfront plan will be “given an opportunity to shine in the public input component,” Knepp said, and elements of that plan “may very well be accommodated.”

“I don’t want anyone to feel we are ignoring those things,” Knepp said. “At the same time, we have a process to go through.”

Parks Division staff take public input seriously and want to give a wide swath of city residents the chance to weigh in before designing anything, said Knepp. That would include a focused outreach to historically underrepresented and marginalized groups, Knepp said, even more so than that of recent outreach efforts like the James Madison Park plan.

George Austin, who has overseen city projects such as Monona Terrace, Overture Center and Judge Doyle Square, said the funds allocated toward the Law Park master planning process is an exciting first step toward envisioning a new waterfront. 

"It’s exciting that (the downtown lakefront) remains within the public’s imagination of how to improve it," Austin said.  

Monona Boathouse 2

The 1893 Monona Boathouse design by Frank Lloyd Wright may return as the capstone of a new Nolen Waterfront Parkway.

Implementing the Nolen Waterfront vision would be challenging in part because it could involve coordination between city, state and federal officials. John Nolen Drive and Blair Street are part of a U.S. highway that runs through the proposed project area.

Under Mayor Paul Soglin’s watch, major civic projects such as the State Street Mall, former Madison Civic Center and Monona Terrace have been completed. In this case, Soglin said the project would be so far out in the future that the city isn’t spending too much time thinking about it, especially given other priorities such as building neighborhood centers.  

“Given the present leadership here in the state and in the White House, given the backlog of other road projects in the state, I would say even if Madison were to urgently push for it, we’d be talking construction in no sooner than 15 to 20 years,” Soglin said.  

What is the John Nolen Drive/ Blair Street corridor study?

The city hired a consultant to study the intersection where John Nolen Drive and South Blair, East Wilson and Williamson streets meet. The crossing includes driveways to businesses, bike paths and lanes, railroad tracks and an improvised left-turn lane. The intersection has earned the nickname "hairball."

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“The most pressing is the intersection of Blair and John Nolen and Williamson,” said Chris Petykowski, city principal engineer.

After a year of study, a consultant in partnership with the city’s Engineering Division released an estimated $3.7 million solution to the intersection. The purpose of the study was to develop short-term solutions that could be reasonably funded with federal transportation dollars within the next five to 10 years and create a safer environment.

The favored recommendation would create northbound and southbound left-turn lanes from John Nolen Drive and Blair Street — an intersection that saw 92 crashes and nine bicycle crashes from 2011 through 2015.

Other recommendations include:

  • Expand the green space in front of the Hotel Ruby Marie, 524 E. Wilson St.

  • Relocate the Machinery Row and Law Park driveways.

  • Expand the bicycle path on Williamson Street to separate cyclists and pedestrians.

  • Add a new traffic signal at Blount and Williamson streets, so cyclists can cross diagonally.

  • Create a raised bicycle track on Blount Street to connect with the Capital City Trail.

What are the next steps for the corridor study?

Petykowski said he is working toward pulling together a final report, which will be discussed by city committees and eventually the Madison City Council. He hopes to introduce a report to the City Council in April.

“We’ve had three public info meetings, so I think we’ve heard … ideas of what we should or shouldn’t do, and it sounds to me like the intersection is headed in the right spot,” Petykowski said.

If adopted, the Engineering Division could work toward final design plans for the intersection. Madison’s 2018 budget allocates $500,000 in 2021 for design work of the intersection.

How do all of these initiatives work together?

The Park Division’s master planning process will follow the John Nolen Drive corridor study, which has identified a reconfiguration of the parking lot and relocation of the boat ramp in Law Park.

“(The Park Division) didn’t want to plan for something in that area that couldn’t be done because of the intersection,” Petykowski said.

During the John Nolen Drive corridor study, the consultant and the city took a brief look at the Nolen Waterfront project and considered possible locations for a park deck over John Nolen Drive east of Monona Terrace.

“We looked a number of different alternatives that could work in the future,” Petykowski said. “We don’t really have plans to go any further at this point.”

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.