Vilas Park’s final renovation plan provokes pushback from upset neighbors.

Henry Vilas Zoo’s current entrance and parking lot is accessible from Randall St. Photo courtesy of Jessica Gregory

Author: Jessica Gregory

As the Vilas and Greenbush Neighborhood Associations send their final recommendations to Vilas Park Master Plan’s consultants, it is unclear whether Madison Park staffers properly met their goal to receive broad input from nearby residents. 

Located in the western region of Madison on Ho-Chunk land, Vilas Park shares Lake Wingra’s beach, overlooks the UW Arboretum and surrounds Henry Vilas Zoo, the area’s free-admission attraction. It’s greenspaces, playgrounds, sporting equipment, lake access and more are within walking distance of the Greenbush and Vilas neighborhoods. With several playgrounds and other amenities holding up past their life expectancy, Vilas Park is ready for renovation. 

Madison Parks Division held the first community input meeting for Vilas Park’s makeover in June of 2019. After several more public opinion meetings and revisions over the course of over a year and a half, its final Master Plan was published on Feb. 5, 2021. 

The Master Plan’s draft and final version were created using “guiding lenses” of equity, adaptability, public health, and sustainability. It’s community-engagement processes were supported by its first goal, to “develop a master plan document based on input from a broad cross-section of the residents of Madison.” Originally, Parks staff hired Urban Assets, a local Madison consultant group, to lead communication efforts with neighbors and Madison residents. Urban Assets pulled out of the project a few months later. Responsibilities for surveying public opinion were then delegated to MSA Professional Services, whose landscaping development team leads Vilas Park planning alongside Park staff. 

Many members of the Greenbush and Vilas neighborhoods share similar visions for the park’s future. Greenbush Neighborhood Association (GNA) representative, Jim Lorman, organized his neighborhood’s engagement results and recommendations for the Master Plan in January of 2020. Lorman expressed confidence in his neighbor’s input as they bring forth varying experiences, interests and needs.  

The most contested issue between neighbors and City of Madison Parks staff is the relocation of the Vilas Park entrance. Within the Master Plan, the entrance would be pushed further along Drake St. to intersect with Campbell St. Moving the entrance from its current location on Randall St. is due to its five-way intersection, a design Madison Parks said is unacceptable and unsafe. Vilas Neighborhood Association countered their argument and reported that 0.5 accidents occur every three years in the current entrance’s intersection. Additional concerns of a Campbell St. entrance involves its impact on Ho-Chunk Bear Mound Park, just further up the street. Both neighborhood associations state that Parks staff have insufficiently proven the need for relocating the Vilas Park entrance that leads to the Henry Vilas Zoo’s admission area. Karolyn Pionek, a Greenbush resident, shared this view. 

“I think the current entrances and exits work. They provide an unrestricted flow in and out of the park, whereas putting [the entrance] in Campbell St. seems like it would create an extra stop point and send more traffic up to the Bear Mound, which I think is a pretty tight little intersection,”  Pionek said. “I am very much against moving the entrance to Campbell St.”

Built between 700 and 1200 A.D., Bear Mound Park is a Ho-Chunk Burial area shaped like a bear that stretches for 82 feet.

Jim Lorman and the GNA believe that Park planners were not clear from the beginning that retaining the current Vilas Park entrance would be non-negotiable. Although public opinion was always welcomed in meetings and forums, residents were not provided with entrance location alternatives. District 13 Alder Tag Evers was said to be a strong mediator for issues between Park planners and neighbors by empowering public opinion and advocating for adequate responses from Park staff. 

Frustrations between Park planners and some neighbors over sensitive issues like the entrance, the location and number of playgrounds and lagoon management continue. Jim Lorman indicated that the conflicts reflect a community-input process that was not transparent. 

“The fact that Parks staff and the consultants feel attacked, which they do, and when the neighborhoods feel unlistened to, which many of them do, it shows the process was not done well. It’s because it doesn’t have to be that way,” Lorman said.

In their final statement to MSA consultants on Feb. 16, Vilas Neighborhood Association (VNA) listed their five recommendations for the Vilas Park Master Plan and confirmed their support of eight elements. Greenbush Neighborhood Association approved VNA’s statement and issued their own. The City of Madison Board of Parks Commissioners will review the Master Plan report for adoption in March.