UW-Madison wants to reimagine and energize Library Mall in the heart of campus with stylish walkways, native plants, shade trees and splashing water.
The university’s $6 million plan looks good so far, with a fundraising campaign on the way.
Similarly, the city of Madison should be thinking big about nearby State Street, its premier shopping and entertainment district that runs between campus and the state Capitol. State Street needs more attention and investment as city buses prepare to leave the bottom half of State Street next year.
The most promising and exciting idea — one that civic leaders have talked about for decades — is turning State Street into a grand promenade. Instead of a river of concrete running its entire length, State Street should become an urban park catering to walkers, shoppers, sidewalk cafes, art, music, small business kiosks, trees, public events and more.
Our increasingly digital word has changed the landscape for retail stores. More people are looking for unique spaces to experience in person. Turning State Street into an engaging pedestrian mall would make it more of a destination Downtown.
Public promenades also encourage people from diverse backgrounds, ages, incomes and ethnicities to interact face to face, which can lead to greater understanding and less division. Our society definitely could use more of that.
Remember that Library Mall, bordered by Memorial Library, the Wisconsin Historical Society, Red Gym and University Club, once had the 700 and 800 blocks of State Street running along its southern end from Lake to Park streets. No one would dream of bringing back all that concrete for vehicles again. That’s because the mall has been incredibly popular for decades as a place for people to gather and stroll. It’s the lifeblood of the east end of campus.
Turning State Street — initially its lower half, and eventually its entire six blocks — into a gorgeous and thriving promenade would likewise invigorate the central city.
Now is the time to plan for State Street’s next chapter. To her credit, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway is steering forward a faster and more efficient public transportation system. The city’s “bus rapid transit” line will provide high-frequency, high-capacity, limited-stop service between the East and West sides with snazzy, 60-foot-long buses and special stations.
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Significantly, the BRT is expected to eliminate the need for buses on the lower half of State Street. Already in the 400 to 600 blocks, people on foot and bicycles have taken over much of the street. They pay little attention to the curbs or traffic, given how infrequently vehicles roll through. The general public hasn’t been allowed to drive on State Street for decades.
The mayor needlessly wants to run the BRT line down the top half of State Street, so that’s the plan for now. Eventually, though, if a pedestrian mall on the lower half of State Street proves popular, the entire stretch of State Street could be free of all motorized traffic.
The BRT could run conveniently nearby or cross State Street.
City officials need to keep this important conversation going. State Street and Downtown were hit hard by the pandemic. Many Downtown workers did their jobs remotely to avoid COVID-19, and rioting and looting in 2020 scared some people away.
Now we’re getting past the pandemic, with more effective vaccines arriving at local pharmacies. Sweeping mask mandates are gone. Madison and its Downtown need a burst of energy and ideas to make State Street better than ever — and to welcome everyone.
Turning the city’s most famous corridor into a grand promenade will go a long way toward achieving those goals.