Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Middleton Hills – A Sort of Homecoming

Dateline: 3:21 pm August 10, 2009 Filed under:

I recently returned to Madison, Wisconsin to write about Middleton Hills, a new urbanism development located just outside the city in Middleton. This was a homecoming of sorts for me, since I went to college in Madison, and remember Middleton Hills when it was but a glimmer in the developer’s eye.

It all goes back to the fall of 1993. I was a freshman at UW-Madison, hadn’t declared a major, and took a landscape architecture course on somewhat of a lark. Phil Lewis was a guest lecturer for that course, and I was fascinated by him, as he seemed to do a lot of thinking about cities, something that struck a chord with me. He was all on about something called “new urbanism.”

This was 1993, mind you, and new urbanism was still in its infancy, perhaps its toddler years. That fall, Andres Duany came to Madison with his staff to conduct a “charrette” for a client named Marshall Erdman, a local developer and businessman who apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s.

I followed Middleton Hills in the newspapaer throughout the approvals process in 1994, and, on a spring day in 1995, I rode my bike from campus out to to 150-acre future site of the development. I was impressed by the rolling hills and views of Lake Mendota and the city of Madison in the distance.

(I brought some friends there that spring for a picnic, and I’m happy to tell you that two of those friends fell in love while playing catch with a football. Meg threw Jeff a perfect spiral, and nearly 11 years of marriage and three kids later, they have not looked back. A song my band played in college even references being inspired Marshall Erdman.)

The development broke ground in summer 1995, and by 1996 there were several homes and a small store on the site. Middleton Hills created quite a stir back then, due in part to its new urbanism principles that include sidewalks, alleys, and front porches. The site plan also preserved important stands of trees, green space, and even the views of the lake and city. Most notably, the design guidelines ensured all homes would be one of three architectural styles, either craftsman, bungalow or prairie style.

I graduated in 1997 and moved away from Madison, and have visited once in 2001 to see its progress. That was until this spring, when I returned for a tour of the essentially complete project with nearly 500 housing units and over 50,000 square feet of retail/commercial space.

Middleton Hills today is a beautiful development. Its streets are full of attractive, distinctive homes, and are connected to a commercial center with an innovative design.

One change from the original plan is the commercial, or “town center” development. Original designs showed all commercial development to be self-contained within Middleton Hills. Anyone with knowledge of the marketplace knows 500 homes cannot support much retail space, much less even a small grocer. Indeed, the original grocer had closed years ago, and not only did the developer want to move ahead with the commercial piece, but a large regional grocer, Roundy’s, was interested.

The result of a quite contentious public process is a very ingenious urban solution. The town center contains a 44,000 square foot Copps grocery store with a relatively conventional facade facing a parking lot and the adjacent busy road. What is innovative is the liner building on the back of the grocery store that contains a row of mixed-use buildings facing Frank Lloyd Wright Avenue, the “Main Street” of Middleton Hills. The liner contains ground floor commerical space with residential units above. A Main Street pedestrian entrance to Copps is also provided. This solution allows for necessary automobile access but also preserves the design integrity of the Main Street.

Middleton Hills allows us to meditate on how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go. This project was germinated in 1993, over a decade and a half ago, when new urbanism was in its infancy. Clinton had just taken office. Kurt Cobain was still alive. That is eons in cultural terms. Yet, the development world moves more slowly.

Middleton Hills is now nearly built out, and is a shining example of suburban development done right, even if decent transit connections are weak. By this time, projects like this should be the norm, not still the exception. I’m not talking about the overly prescriptive architecture of the buildings, although clearly there was demand for it, and I personally really like the result. I speak of the development pattern of walkability, mixed-use, and homes where people dwell and cars are in their appropriate place behind the house.

Middleton Hills didn’t turn out exactly as planned. Nothing ever does. The original vision of Marshall Erdman is very much present. Critically, the commercial solution was a practical compromise in today’s marketplace, and works very well.

It was very gratifying to return to the Madison area, the place where I got turned on to cities and development, and see a project I have been intimately aware of since its inception. Middleton Hills is really quite lovely. Its lessons cannot be learned fast enough.

Click here for a photo essay of Middleton Hills.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.