The Nolen Waterfront A Vision for Our Time

A Historic Plan for Madison's Lakefront

We named our vision in honor of John Nolen who proposed a Great Esplanade along Lake Monona as part of his 1909 “Madison: A Model City” plan. Since Nolen, many others have offered ideas for expanding Law Park but the potential of Madison's premier lakefront remains unrealized. The Nolen Waterfront is a compelling proposal that can finally achieve Nolen's dream.

What is the Nolen Waterfront?

The Nolen Waterfront is a transformative vision for creating a 9 AC park along the Lake Monona waterfront between Monona Terrace and Blair Street. The new park is a 1500′ long and 200′ wide raised deck over John Nolen Drive between Monona Terrace and Blair Street. This vision is offered to the city as a starting point for a collaborative community engagement process to expand Law Park and connect the Downtown to the lakefront.

What will this plan do for Madison?

There are several compelling reasons why the Nolen Waterfront will be a transformative project for downtown Madison and the entire community.

The Nolen Waterfront will become Madison's living room

According to the Urban Parks Alliance, parks are dynamic places that can play a vital role in bringing people together across social, economic and racial divides. It is our vision that the Nolen Waterfront will become Madison's “living room”, a welcoming and inclusive place where the entire community can feel comfortable coming together for social interaction, recreation, entertainment and scenic enjoyment of the lake. It is critical that the Nolen Waterfront is planned and programmed in a way that promotes diversity and social equity.

The Nolen Waterfront will connect downtown Madison to Lake Monona

This diagram illustrates the multiple bicycle and pedestrian connections to the Nolen Waterfront. The orange lines are bicycle connections and the blue dashed lines are pedestrian connections. Bicyclists on the Capital City Bicycle Path will be able to use handicap accessible paths to connect and move through the park to the downtown. Pedestrians will be able to connect to the park using ramps and stairways along the lakefront and walkways between buildings along Wilson Street. These multiple connections will ensure that the Nolen Waterfront is seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the downtown and that the downtown and Lake Monona are finally connected.

The Nolen Waterfront will allow Monona Terrace to expand

Monona Terrace will need to expand in order to remain competitive. This aerial sketch and perspective illustrate how Monona Terrace can expand into the new park with approximately 50,000 SF of new meeting room space directly connected to the existing convention center. The new addition will include a low profile glass front that allows full views of Lake Monona for users and a 2 AC roof top park with barrier free connections to the lakefront and other park spaces that are part of the Nolen Waterfront.

The Nolen Waterfront will improve water quality and lake access

A series of wetlands are proposed as part of the Nolen Waterfront to filter and clean storm water runoff before entering the lake. The proposed wetlands will be enclosed by stone revetments with boardwalks mounted on top to enhance access to their lake for park users.

The Nolen Waterfront will implement Frank Lloyd Wright's 1893 Boathouse

The Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse was designed in 1893 but was never built. This iconic building will be the centerpiece of the Nolen Waterfront serving as a visitor center, an aquatic center and a transient docking facility that will provide access to the park from the lake. The boathouse, Frank Lloyd Wright's first professional project, will be located about 1000' from Monona Terrace, Frank Lloyd Wright's last project designed in 1959 just before he died.

Illustration: Anderson Illustration Associates

The Nolen Waterfront will stimulate redevelopment and economic opportunity

Similar to visionary waterfront projects in other cities across the country, the Nolen Waterfront will be a catalyst for new real estate investment and increased tax base, new business and job creation, and tourism. This aerial view illustrates where potential redevelopment could occur around the new park.

How other cities have done it

Often, the first reaction to visionary projects like the Nolen Waterfront is that they are too expensive and too complicated to build. Today, many cities across the country are choosing to deck over their highways to reconnect their urban fabric and create exciting new community gathering places. They view these projects as good investments because of the strong potential for public and private funding and economic return. We profiled three of these projects that can serve as models for the Nolen Waterfront.

Highline Park New York

The Highline Park in New York is a 1.45 mile ribbon of parkland and civic amenities built on top of an 1930s abandoned elevated rail line. Highline Park cost $260 million to construct in 2004 and has generated nearly $2 billion in new economic activity since its completion.

Millennium Park Chicago

Millennium Park is a 24.5 AC park in downtown Chicago where residents and visitors come to enjoy gardens, ice skating, outdoor and indoor concerts, restaurants, festivals and fairs, fountains and water features, and interactive public art. Millennium Park was constructed in 2004 by decking over the Illinois Central rail yards for a cost of $500 million with $320 million funded privately. The economic impact of Millennium Park since its completion has been calculated at over ten times the initial cost of construction including new real estate investment, new businesses and jobs, increased tourism, increased property values and increased retail sales.

Klyde Warren Park Dallas

The 5 AC Klyde Warren Park in Dallas is a $100 million decking project over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway that has transformed Downtown Dallas by connecting the Dallas Arts District to the Downtown. Half of the park's funding came from private donations and half came from a combination of local, state and federal grants. Since its completion in 2012, the park has generated 182 new jobs, 1.5 million annual visitors, $1 billion in new commercial and residential development within a half mile of the park, and $91 million in new tax revenue.

Photograph: Joe Mabel

Keys to implementing our transformative vision

One: Assess

The City of Madison will reconstruct the Blair intersection in 2018 and has hired Strand and Associates to study reconstruction options. The Madison Design Professionals Workgroup have provided input to the city on design ideas that will complement the Nolen Waterfront. The Design Professionals have also received a grant to work with GRAEF Engineers to prepare a technical design and cost analysis that will provide critical answers to questions about the feasibility of the Nolen Waterfront.

Two: Secure

Securing funding that will not impact Madison taxpayers will be another key to successful implementation. The Nolen Waterfront is a visionary project that provides transportation, parks and open space, environmental, placemaking and economic benefits. We believe that the Nolen Waterfront will attract a significant amount of public funding and private donations because of its visionary scope and its multiple benefits.

Three: Build

Finally, a vision as big as the Nolen Waterfront will take a broad coalition of partners to plan and implement, much like Monona Terrace 20 years ago. In fact, we think of the Nolen Waterfront as Monona Terrace Phase Two because of what it will do for Madison.

Who are the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup?

The “Great Recession” of 2009 - 2012 created the opportunity for a talented group of Madison design professionals to collaborate—pro bono—on design visions for downtown Madison that assisted the city in the preparation of the Downtown Master Plan Update. The Madison Design Professionals Workgroup continued to work together even after the recession ended with a focus on a major civic project: the long-deferred vision of John Nolen for our Lake Monona waterfront. The group has donated hundreds of hours of their time since 2012 to take this vision from a mere concept to a well-developed plan. Against the backdrop of Madison history, this kind of pro bono initiative is exceedingly rare.

The Team

What are Madisonians saying?

Marc Eisen, Isthmus Contributor, says:
“You have to wonder how much unrealized value could be uncorked if the (Blair) intersection were tamed and Lake Monona laps against a new downtown park… featuring the unbuilt Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse.”
Eisen, Marc. “Lake effects – Making good on Madison's waterfront promise.” Isthmus, October 13, 2016.
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“We have been strong proponents of creating ways for residents and visitors to enjoy and celebrate our stunning lakes. The Nolen Waterfront concepts result in a bold and extraordinary vision that would positively transform the Lake Monona waterfront for generations to come. And, the possibility of further enhancing one of our city's greatest assets—Monona Terrace—would pay additional dividends for decades.”

Deb Archer
President/CEO, Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau

“What can we learn from Nolen and Wright, and what can we envision as we plan our city's future?  This project allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, stretch our imaginations, and dream of what the future of Madison may look like.”

Tom Linfield
Vice-President, Madison Community Foundation

“...nothing really big...or visionary...gets done without taking risks...the Nolen Waterfront concept is one of several game changing opportunities that face the leaders of our unique city...two others would be the Alliant Energy Center property and the former Oscar Mayer site....each of these if planned and approached boldly can be game changers for generations to come....or....we can just wait and see what happens...settle for mediocrity...and disappoint those that follow us...with that said, to capture the results and rewards of the excellent design effort thus far by the Madison Design Professional Workgroup on the Nolen achieve traffic flow, pedestrian experience, economic development and historic revitalization...our leaders must think differently...more collectively...and engage not only Madison...but all of our governmental entities together....City, County, State, Federal...and if we don't...if the best we can do is repave the bike path along the lake and change the Blair Street traffic flow...we will have failed and lost the opportunity to create the kind of urban space that future generations will demand in great cities...”

Rich Lynch
Chairman, J.H. Findorff & Son Inc.

“Without a Collective Vision we have no history and we see no future. As a caretaker for this city, I feel obligated to advance our humanity through this design solution. We as a community must live the words Preservation through Renovation in order to protect the Madison Experience. Preserving our aquatic assets while eliminating massive urban blight is necessary for the survival of a city.”

Mark Schmitz
Creative Director, ZEBRADOG

“Hovde Properties has been closely tracking the work of the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup the last few years. The Nolen Waterfront Vision and expansion of Law Park is the catalytic connection between Madison's vibrant downtown and the beauty that is Lake Monona.  We can't think of a more important use of the substantial park fees that have been paid out by multi-family developers and are currently escrowed for future park improvements. This much-needed project will serve as a shining example of the close collaboration between the public and private sectors, that ultimately benefits all Madison's citizens!”

Mike Slavish
President, Hovde Properties

“As early as 2007 when work began to update the City’s Downtown Plan, the public loudly voiced that the #1 challenge/issue was “Access to the Lakes”. The City of Madison has a history of turning its backs on our lakes and it is time that we turn that around. The Madison Design Professionals Workgroup, among others, have offered good ideas for creating a public space on Lake Monona where everyone has access and an opportunity to celebrate this beautiful asset. There is no reason to wait for additional planning—the planning has taken place for over 10 years—let’s celebrate and get this accomplished”

Susan Schmitz
President, DMI

“Madison again finds itself on the cusp of another decision that will help define its future. [T]here is...a group of designers and architects who are proposing a dramatic re-imagining of the John Nolen Drive/Blair Street thoroughfare including a deck over John Nolen Drive, a plan that somewhat resembles Chicago's Millennium Park. It's a familiar challenge...big ideas and vision balanced with practicality and money. [I]t will affect how a very important piece of our downtown looks and functions.”

Neil Heinen
WISC Editorial

“I applaud this is something we should aspire to accomplish. This city longs for an impactful project that activates the lakes, the most underutilized resource in the city. The FLW Boathouse should be built and in that location.”

Gregg McManners
Executive Director, Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center

“The lakes are the defining element of Madison. Law Park and the adjoining intersection should enhance them not detract from them. We are excited about the possibilities of a new waterfront here.”

James Tye
Founder and Executive Director, The Clean Lakes Alliance

This Project was supported in part by a grant from the Madison Community Foundation, as part of the Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Celebration.

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