Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Mistake on State? Overture and Development Priorities

by Tom Bozzo

Continuing yesterday's lunchtime thoughts, let me add that I'm not an unqualified fan of the Overture Center.

Oh, sure, the new concert hall is a vast improvement over the old Oscar Mayer Theater, and the various other resident performing arts groups from the old Civic Center should benefit from similar leaps in the smaller performance spaces, and the new home for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art might make even make MMoCA feel more like an art museum.

Still, I tend to view the project as a missed opportunity for the city. The old Civic Center could feel like a hole in the otherwise bustling State St., and Overture in some ways makes the hole bigger.

Quite simply, if I were the Archduke of Madison, the concert hall would have been located elsewhere — probably in the 300 block of East Washington Avenue, where a surface parking lot presently anchors the southwest end of the East Wash corridor's post-industrial blight. This crackpot view was reinforced by taking in fire truck parade from a vantage point across State from the old Capitol Theater/Civic Center entrance. From the historic Capitol facade to the glassed-in wedge "icon" where the Radical Rye used to be (the Radical Rye of Light?), Cesar Pelli has given us a rather sterile and over-tall stretch of wall for the not overly broad State St (visible behind the Fitchburg ladder truck here; compare the rosy-looking drawing on this Overture Foundation page). Plus, in my fantasy world, Dotty's, the Radical Rye, and whatever was in the old Deb and Lola's (sniff) space would never have been displaced.

What of the broader development issues? I had been somewhat boggled back in the death throes of the Fairchild St. Dotty's that, having been graced with a State Street that could survive the best efforts of the urban pedestrian mall fad to kill it, the city would knock down perfectly good businesses in the name of the arts — or at least the somewhat misguided notion that what the street really needed was more Symphony patrons.

Since then, I think the Cieslewicz administration deserves considerable credit for having promoted increased density in the central neighborhoods (including the northwest end of ours) without waging much if any unnecessary assault on what's already in place. The simple fact — a propos of Brad DeLong's link last weekend to a summer piece by Nathan Newman at TPMCafé criticizing progressives for failing to take affordable housing issues seriously enough, with some of us even clinging to beloved lower-density traditional neighborhoods at the cost of
...condemn[ing] others to homelessness and the rest to increasingly long commutes... more people will be driven out into the suburbs to create more strip malls, SUVs, environmental degradation, and Republicans.
(which is, of course, bad) — is that hardly any cities have such want of property that's ripe for redevelopment that it's necessary to put bulldozers to not-blighted properties. It's not obviously true even of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, let alone mid-sized cities without especially binding space constraints such as Madison (the lakes notwithstanding).

Later: Development ahead of transit: Sneaky?
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