Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

21 August, 2012

Madison Lakes Don't Get No Respect

Living near Lake Monona, I rarely think about access to the lakes as I just have to walk down the street and I am there. However the notion of the public enjoying the lakes and lakeshores became an issue last month when the City Council rejected part of the masterplan for downtown which called for filling in a couple acres of Lake Monona to enlarge Law Park. I liked the idea of an expanded park with more room to enjoy the lake, a pavilion, boat slips, etc. and the plan threw into sharp relief the paucity of public spaces on our lakeshores.

A couple weeks later Michael Doyle of Chicago Carless wrote a blog post entitled "Looking for Madison" in which he described his disappointment with access to our fair lakes.

It took three hours and lots of double-backs, U-turns, and retreating out of cul-de-sacs. Ultimately, it was a depressing effort. (At least from a Chicagoan’s perspective.) We figured we would find at least a few stunning views back across one or both lakes of Madison’s Capitol-topped downtown hill. Mostly, though, we found an unbroken wall of lakefront development in the form of endless exclusive single-family homes with private docks hidden behind view-stealing privacy hedges, very occasionally broken by a handful of boat launches.

This was the rule outside of Madison, where I can recall two public lakefront parks of any size and almost no unfettered view of the isthmus that didn’t involve peering between houses. Things were better within Madison, itself, with sizeable areas of lakefront parkland–though not many–both near downtown and further out in the neighborhoods, and pocket (street-ending) lakefront access in some neighborhoods. But not much better.

It isn’t like we weren’t pulling for Madison to come through. In some neighborhoods we circled and circled, hoping a strange squiggle on Google Maps might be a new, unnamed road, or trying to get to a big stand of trees we could see just over the rooftops, only to discover they were in someone’s private back yard.

Overall, though, after three hours of exploring public lakefront access and views in a metropolitan area famed for both urban beauty and lake recreation, the Madison region seemed pretty hemmed in and cut off from its lakefronts. It was a surprise for us both, and left us feeling that in one fundamental way the urban region that many consider to be the best in Wisconsin didn’t live up to its own press, which takes pains to tout lake recreation.

It sounds like they didn't hit Olin-Turville Park but he still makes a good point here about the lakes being rather inaccessible to the public. (Thankfully he avoided noting how algae-ridden and awful-smelling the lakes are.) Beyond this, there are very few waterfront spots which act as public attractions. There are some nice parks, beaches and boat launches, but, aside from the Union Terrace, there isn't much in the way of space for public gathering that go beyond a field of grass and some picnic tables.

Madison is very Capitol Square-centric and we have nothing akin to Grant Park in Chicago or the Henry W. Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee. There are no bandshells, museums, or festival amenities on our lakeshores; only state office buildings, apartments/condos, and homes. (And the convention center.) The lakes are something of an afterthought. So rest in peace, Law Park plan.

It's been well over a year since I've heard anything about the Nolen Centennial Project. Is that effort still ongoing? I really like the idea of a "waterfront interpretative center". Perhaps if people learned just how bad the lakes are, there might be some more initiative taken in their cleaning.

On a side note, Doyle also says "Milwaukee’s poutine is better, and the lakefront urbanites on either side of the state border are much friendlier than we found Madison’s lifelong inlanders to be."

I don't know about poutine in Madison but is it really inferior to that found in Milwaukee? Any locals reading this that have gustatory experience in this area? And I have to wonder who he ran into that lacked amicability. I hear people thanking bus drivers in Madison all the time. How could we not be friendly?
|| Palmer, 1:51 PM

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