Friday, June 30, 2006

Downtown Madison priorities

I love this place -- a bookish oasis where you can spend hours without spending dollars, where there’s no admission charge, where books are free for the borrowing and you can roam as far as your dreams will take you without ever leaving your seat. It’s the Bernard Schwab Building, the downtown branch of the Madison Public Library.

It's been open for 41 years and it's showing its age. It's also starved for space. Until recently, they had a mural in the entrance showing an architect's concept drawing of a proposed spiffy-looking upward expansion at the site (which was built to accommodate new construction on the roof). I was pleased that the library was at last going to get some new finery of its own, to hold its own against the splendor of the Overture center across the street.

But the mural has disappeared, replaced by a bland map of the library system's branches, and it's my understanding that there are no current plans to expand downtown. It makes me wonder what the allocation of resources on the two sides of West Mifflin Street says about the future of Madison's downtown. On the one side, an aging library that serves everyone but lacks funds for a facelift. Across the street, a lavishly funded arts complex that serves a considerably more elite demographic group -- the Overture Center, aka the condo magnet, for the role it has played in spurring nearby residential development.

In Seattle, they did things differently. For about the same amount of money that it cost to build the Cesar Pelli facility here, courtesy of local philanthropist Jerry Frautschi, Seattle built a library designed by Rem Koolhaas. We got a competent design that received scant notice outside Madison. Seattle got an instant classic, a breathtaking reinvention of the library concept for the information age, which became world-famous overnight. You might say it's the Bilbao of libraries.

What does all this say about our priorities? The condo magnet is having an impact. You hear more and more nervous laughter these days about downtown Madison becoming a gated retirement community. Until now, this was only a metaphor. But the recent trial balloon floated by the mayor's office -- fencing off the State Street Halloween festivities in order to charge admission and better control the crowd -- threatens to make the metaphor literal. Paul Soglin takes a well-deserved swipe at the idea in his blog, and in a series of linked posts suggests some common sense alternatives. (Remember when we used to have common sense and competence in the mayor's office?)

My question is: How close are we to the threshold at which too much luxury condo development deprives the downtown of the very life that attracted the buyers in the first place? What happens when we reach it?


Anonymous said...

The Seattle links look interesting, but they don't work.

Madison Guy said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Sorry about the broken links -- just one of those Blogger things. They should work now.