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Thursday, July 10, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Making UW Library Mall a "destination" again
The city and university consider proposals for a major facelift

The Hagenah fountain could disappear.
Credit:UW Madison University Communications
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If you're tired of the mess that is Library Mall, get used to it. It's going to remain a construction zone for at least four more years.

And when it reopens, the iconic fountain at its center may be missing.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison and the city are considering several plans for the area. The Common Council is expected to vote on conceptual plans on Oct. 1.

There are actually two projects with different schedules on the horizon. One focuses on the area between the UW Memorial Library and Wisconsin Historical Society; the other on the adjacent 700 and 800 blocks of the State Street Mall. The UW and city are collaborating on all of it.

"Most people in the community refer to that whole space as 'Library Mall,' " says Bill Fruhling, a city planner. "They are linked spaces, even though there are two different owners, and they really need to be designed to work well together."'

Planners also have to keep in mind designs for nearby Alumni Park, slated to replace the parking lot next to the Memorial Union by 2015, and the recently completed East Campus Mall, which runs perpendicular to State Street, from State to Dayton Street.

Improved pedestrian crossings, more green space, a grand entry at Park Street, more food carts, better lighting, interactive fountains, vastly increased seating and new performance areas are all exciting possibilities. Meanwhile, fenced-in Library Mall must continue to serve humbler duties, hosting construction materials, machinery and trailers.

"In the past five or six years we've done some major utility work in that area, as part of the East Campus Mall development and all the developments along it," says Gary Brown, UW director of campus planning and landscape architecture. Use of Library Mall has also been interrupted by a Historical Society building project. And then there's the UW Memorial Union's renovation through 2017.

"So we've got another four years of this sort of temporary landscape out there," says Brown. "I know that the Historical Society will be done later this fall, so we might be able to restore some of Library Mall for a little bit."

A place to be

Longtime Madisonians will recall when the 700 and 800 blocks of State Street were closed to vehicular traffic in 1976 for conversion into a pedestrian mall. (Construction of the State Street Mall began block by block in 1974.) With its picnic tables, stage, speaker's podium and even a life-sized chessboard complete with pieces, the area near East Campus Mall (formerly Murray Street) was something of a circus.

"That's one of the important things we're trying to recapture," says Fruhling. "It's the intersection of these two busy pedestrian corridors. It needs to function well, but we also want to recapture some of those qualities of it being a destination, a place where people want to go, and spend time and hang out."

First up, though, will be the bland geometry of the last two blocks of State, from Lake Street to Park. Recommended is a 26-foot zone down the center, for use as a fire lane. Flanking that will be "amenity zones," with trees, light poles and seating. There will also be space for food carts " perhaps all the way to Park, with carts turned 90-degrees, preventing patron lines from crossing a new bicycle corridor. These broad concepts were introduced to the Common Council on Sept 17.

Of special concern is the entrance to State Street from Park Street. As is, there's no sense of arrival. You'd likely not even know it's State Street.

Crossing Park Street toward Bascom Hill is also not ideal. "You walk across the street and you basically walk into a wall," says Fruhling. "So we're also considering some design changes to the bottom of Bascom Hill. That might be something, depending on how the final design and budget numbers work out, that the university would to do, with this project or at a later date. I think fixing that end of State Street is something everybody feels very supportive of."

The pedestrian crossing there, and the one on Langdon in front of the Union, could be remade as "tabletop" designs, similar to that on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, between the Municipal and City-County buildings. Raising streets to sidewalk level in those spots would increase pedestrian safety.

Three designs

There are three proposed designs for Library Mall.

The "oval design," as its name suggests, would create an oval-shaped lawn, bisected by two diagonal walkways with a fountain off-center. That may or may not be the Hagenah fountain, which has been the mall's centerpiece for decades. It could instead be a more "interactive" fountain. A stage area would be placed at the oval's southern tip. The existing Class of 1923 clock tower, or another like it, dedicated to the same class, would be placed near the Union crosswalk.

The "great lawn" design does away with a fountain altogether, though flanking "water features" would be placed on the west side of the Memorial Library. A stage would be featured in front of the library's west exit, originally its main entrance. Another performance space would be placed in the southwest corner of the mall. The clock tower, or another like it, would be placed in the northeast corner. There would be only one diagonal walkway, leading from State toward the Historical Society entrance.

Neither design directly connects to the esplanade of the East Campus Mall. Nor would a third, preservationist option that is being prepared. It would essentially return everything to the status quo of a few years ago. The irony of this "historical design" is that Library Mall dates only to 1958.

That was when the fountain donated by William Hagenah, one of the primary designers of the modern Library Mall, was placed. From 1946 to 1954 the space hosted a parking lot and seven Quonset huts -- temporary buildings for the postwar enrollment boom. Before that it was mostly mud, used for winter ice skating, military drills, fraternity rushes and -- before Camp Randall -- football.

Endless construction

The city will carry out its work on the State Street portion next year, at a cost of $4.9 million. For the UW, decisions are a long way away, as is funding. Brown suspects Library Mall will have to rely on donations.

Preservation of the Hagenah fountain remains uncertain, but it's "tending" to be likely, Brown says. It's a contributing feature of the Bascom Hill National Historic District, of which Library Mall is a part.

Meanwhile, Brown is as eager as anyone for work to begin on the eyesore that was once one of UW's most charming spots.

"We've actually heard from students already [who say], 'You know, I've had my whole career here, and I've never seen Library Mall and the fountain."

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