Heinen: Thinking big in 2018

2017 helped ignite a fire in Heinen
Heinen: Thinking big in 2018

It took a year like 2017 to once again ignite a little fire in me to embrace big ideas for Madison for 2018–embrace them and promote them, advocate for them and try to marshal the civic will to accomplish them.

This has felt like a challenge lately, probably since the Capitol East Corridor redevelopment launched a little over a decade ago, a vision that was itself a decade in the dreaming. Since then politics at the state and federal levels aimed at stifling innovation and inclusion, and new urban policies–more successful in theory than execution–dampened my enthusiasm for big ideas. But cities are where big ideas are born. Cities attract people who have big ideas. And yes, I love this city and get pleasure from simply recognizing what a wonderful place this can be. And 2018 feels like the year to once again think big.

In the next 11 months we will have the opportunity to begin building new neighborhoods, create a 21st century urban transportation system, develop a downtown park, a new link to the lakes and plan for new schools. We can take steps to transform the Alliant Energy Center into an exciting meeting/event/recreation destination district that will help plot the future of south Madison. We can ensure that the Oscar Mayer property is the city’s next great employment hub, that the Madison Public Market is the area’s next great cultural asset, and that the next phase of the Cap East district keeps its mojo working. That’s not to say we lose sight of the basics. Our commitments to creating more affordable housing and to public safety above all else must not waver. But Madison can be a safe, livable city and still dream big. In fact, it must.

Of course money, as always, is a challenge. Virtually everything I’m talking about here is expensive. But history proves that if we have the will, we can usually find a way to pay for the important stuff. Madison is actually pretty good at public/private partnerships. And the ideas we’re talking about, the building and redeveloping and creating are all investments with potentially big payoffs. Another, perhaps even more difficult challenge, is inter-governmental collaboration. Ideas this big require municipalities, school districts, public safety entities and others to work together. Turf battles result in small ideas; easier to get done but doomed to be viewed as missed opportunities. The first step to a globally competitive region with a healthy urban heart is a willingness to work for the common and greater good and then make the case for short-term sacrifice for long-term benefits.

I must confess, I want it all. That’s probably impossible. But the most inspirational, and aspirational, city plans are comprehensive by design. A South Madison anchored by a new Madison College campus and an exciting new Alliant Energy Center campus envisioned from Park Street to Olin-Turville Park will benefit from a new Nolen Waterfront public space. A public market and newly opened StartingBlock (and The Sylvee venue) complement each other nicely. Let’s decide where we need new schools so we can plan new housing, and vice versa. And if we genuinely start to plan for these big projects, and the tens of thousands of new residents they will attract, it’s going to be so much easier to create a multi-model transportation system.

I’ve got more. Move the bus barns off of East Washington Avenue. Install more public art everywhere. Make more and better food options and urban agriculture sites in all neighborhoods. Update our school buildings for the 21st century.

Finally, make sure every project includes every citizen. Big ideas are first and foremost the foundation of a welcoming, diverse city and an inclusive economy. The very best antidote to the surreally petty, short-sighted, self-indulgent politics at the state and federal levels is a city of big ideas. Let’s get back to being one.

Side notes

Keep the doors open
The Benevolent Specialists Project Free Clinic is so good at what it does, most people don’t even know it exists. The people who do know it exists are the roughly 1,000 low income people without insurance who, each year, receive specialty medical care including ophthalmology, orthopedics and cardiology. In others words, the clinic, operated primarily by retired doctors, is indispensable. Which is why the rest of us must now step up. The clinic has lost its funding and needs about $130,000 a year to keep its Middleton location doors open. Send checks to BSP Free Clinic, Attention: Tricia Levenhagen, 2711 Allen Blvd., Middleton, WI, 53562.

Conservative conservation
There was a time when energy conservation and natural resource preservation were fundamentally conservative political priorities in Wisconsin. Those days have been gone for some time now. But a new conservative group has formed to persuade state Republicans that renewable energies have economic benefits that, among other things, fit nicely with conservative values. The Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum has business leaders and names like former Gov. Tommy Thompson as members.