First stop: Madison downtown development

The Commerce Lexington trip began with several optional tours — Arts & Culture, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recreation, “green” Madison and downtown development.

I took the downtown development tour, which focused on an impressive new mixed-use project called University Square. It is a $180 million public-private partnership between a developer and the university that is built beside campus on a 3.4-acre site that had been a 1970s-era shopping center.

The most striking thing about University Square, which has won some design awards, is the clean, open contemporary architecture. One interesting feature is a roof garden on the fourth floor, with patio areas for residents and students and green plantings in trays around the roof.

About one-fourth of the space is planned for retail, although the poor economy has slowed that piece of the project. The university has one-fourth of the space, which is used for student services offices and space for student activities.

Half the building is a private development of upscale student apartments — 356 units that can hold 800 students. The apartments are quite nice — and not cheap. They rent for $1,000 per bedroom (units have one, two or three bedrooms).  Many students rent two-to-a-bedroom to save money.

At 1.1 million square feet, it is the largest mixed-use project ever done in Madison.

About $3 million in tax-increment financing was used for the enclosed parking areas, and the university invested about $57 million. The rest is private money, said Susan Springman, who works for the developer, Executive Management Inc.

The developer approached the university about the project in 1996. Construction began in 2006 and the building has been opening in phases over the past nine months. Springman said one thing that made the project possible was a close working relationship with the city.

This is one of the nicer of many new student housing apartment projects. Local officials say it has helped move students out of older homes in the neighborhoods surrounding the university, allowing families to start moving back into those and making the neighborhoods more stable.

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