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HISTORY: Middleton Hills Coming to Fruition

Excerpts from Chapter 14 entitled Swan Song from the book, “Uncommon Sense: The Life of Marshall Erdman”

(Marshall Erdman’s) new venture, which must have been percolating in his mind for years, was for an innovative development on 153 acres of land that he owned in Middleton. He liked to say that when he had bought it 30 years before, the family would picnic there and pick wild strawberries. It was beautiful, high, rolling land overlooking the western end of Lake Mendota, with a panoramic view of the university and the state capitol in the distance. He knew he wanted to do something special with this land. He just wasn’t sure what. Over the years, he had solicited plans from various people, including one for a kind of “company town” where employees would live in the homes.

His first serious attempt at developing his Middleton property came as a result of a proposed joint venture between Erdman & Associates and the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) of Chicago in 1971. Marshall knew Tom Rosengren from their company and became friends with its general manager, Bruce Graham. SOM had an interest in providing quality housing at an affordable price. Marshall had a new factory in Waunakee that was just starting to experiment in prefabricated modular housing units.

The initial phase of the plan was to build sixty-eight owner-occupied townhouses “organized in efficient clusters with little or no alteration of the existing terrain or vegetation.” Open space would be organized to provide a “sequential link between all clusters and the amenities such as the school, shopping, and recreational spaces.” The partnership called for Erdman to provide the land and construction of the modular units, and SOM to provide capital, design, and engineering.

A general development plan was drafted titled “Middleton Hills Planned Community Develop-ment” that called for the sale of townhouses to begin in 1972. The project, however, got bogged down in efforts to rezone the land, and within a year Marshall had lost his enthusiasm and had moved on to other projects.

It was nearly 20 years later when a new idea began to crystallize in Marshall’s mind. Dan Ramsey, mayor of the city of Middleton, was now encouraging Marshall to develop his 153 acres. Middleton had grown around three sides of the property, and the city wanted the additional tax revenue a development would bring.

Marshall had read an article in an architectural magazine about a Miami-based architectural firm called DPZ that was designing and building a new kind of community that they were calling “New Urbanism.” A local attorney, Susan King, who was familiar with Andres Duany of the Miami firm, encouraged Marshall to explore the possibilities of a TND (traditional neighborhood development).

In a 1996 article in Land Lines, William Fulton wrote, “The New Urbanism has captured the imagination of the American public like no urban planning movement in decades.” This article, written sometime after the one that captured Marshall’s attention, credits the New Urbanists with seeking to redefine the nature of the American metropolis by reintroducing traditional notions of neighborhood design and fitting those ideas into a variety of urban and suburban settings.

It continues, “The New Urbanism began as a reaction to conventional suburban planning as it has been practiced in the United States since the 1940s. New Urbanists view the decentralized, auto-oriented suburb as a recipe for disaster ... creating ever-increasing congestion on roads, lack of meaningful civic life, loss of open space, limited opportunities for children and others without cars, and a general discontent among suburbanites.”

The article went on to say that the New Urbanism owed much to the City Beautiful and Garden City movements of the early twentieth century and mentioned the widely publicized new town of Seaside, Florida, as the first example. Although various planning and design principles were associated with New Urbanism, most definitions included the following ideas:

  • walkable neighborhoods oriented around the five-minute walk
  • primary orientation around public transit systems
  • greater integration of different types of land use at the neighborhood level
  • smaller lots, larger green spaces, narrow streets

DPZ’s husband-and-wife team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk had designed Seaside and were involved in a number of other similar projects. Duany and Plater-Zyberk had drawn raves for their designs from Florida to Washington, D.C.    

Marshall contacted Duany and after a number of conversations, invited him to Madison to make a presentation to Middleton officials and residents at the Middleton Public Library in July 1993. About 60 residents and Middleton officials attended.

Duany could not have imagined that the unusual man who picked him up that day at the Dane County Airport would become a close friend and influence on his life.

“He picked me up at the airport and he was wearing these Bermuda shorts,” Duany recalled. “But I remember thinking right away that this was a fabulous guy. We got along perfectly. He was very charming.”

There were going to be some setbacks along the road to what would become Middleton Hills, particularly when it came to changing the existing zoning regulations having to do with variances, setbacks, street widths, et cetera, but that first meeting in July of ’93 went well.

Marshall told the group about how he envisioned an old-fashioned neighborhood community that would integrate all kinds of development: residential, retail, offices, churches, and schools. Walking would be the primary mode of transportation within the neighborhood. Marshall added that he would not proceed unless both Middleton residents and elected officials were firmly on board.

Marshall then introduced Duany, who gave a slide presentation. The mood in the room was upbeat. “It’s only conceptual today,” city council member Dave Egan said. “I think it’s headed in the right direction.”

Liz Erpenbach, a council member whose son-in-law, Russ Feingold, had recently been elected to the United States Senate, was enthusiastic. “It reminded me of my old neighborhood [in Minneapolis],” Erpenbach said. “We had alleys and we could walk to church and walk to the store and walk to school.”

One Middleton resident was skeptical. Bill Liebl told The Capital Times he thought Marshall and Duany had put on “a pretty good sales job. Whether or not it’s practical remains to be seen.”

For his part, Duany was excited about the site’s potential. “You have to admit it was full of possibilities,” Duany said. “Virtually anything would have worked well there. You have the great long views, the rolling landscape. It was a wonderful property.”

Madison has a reputation for contentiousness when it comes to new or innovative proposals. Middleton is close enough to share some of Madison’s eccentricities, and it was unlikely that the development could be launched without some controversy. By February 1994, the Middleton Public Works Committee was insisting that the project, now known as Middleton Hills, not proceed until some significant changes were made in Duany’s design. In addition, 100 Middleton residents had signed a petition in opposition, saying they were worried about traffic and urging that the land be used as a park.

Some of the complaints that were raised during planning sessions were those that are common to most New Urbanist communities: the traditional neighborhoods that the New Urbanists hope to replicate are characterized by compactness, small scale, and diversity of building types. But increasingly, the economic and lifestyle demands of urban and even suburban life seem to require facilities on a massive scale.

Transportation was perhaps the most contentious single aspect of the New Urbanism, which is often “sold” to public officials based on its supposed transportation benefits. Reduced dependence on the automobile, increased transit use, shorter trips, and a more flexible hierarchy of streets make common sense, but getting people to give up their dependence on the automobile has proved daunting.

The city’s problem with Middleton Hills, however, was largely the proposed width of the streets in the neighborhood. Duany’s streets as designed were twenty-six feet wide, which he argued would slow down traffic and actually create a safer neighborhood. This measurement went against the city codes. Middleton required thirty-two feet for any new development, and local officials such as fire chiefs and traffic engineers who establish these codes were loath to alter them.

Public Works Chairwoman Julie Brunette was curt when asked about the city’s stance by a reporter. “We’re looking at the nuts and bolts and how to get the plows and the garbage trucks up there long after Mr. Erdman and Mr. Duany have moved on to their next visionary project,” she said. Marshall on his part argued that having streets wide enough for two fire trucks to pass one another, leaving space on either side for parked cars, was excessive.

Marshall was angered, frustrated, and more than a little hurt by the reaction he was getting from some. He told Marc Eisen of Isthmus, “This will be my swan song. I believe in it. Don’t make too much of this, but I want this to be my contribution to the community. I want to do something worthwhile.” When he wasn’t getting the type of response he expected, he told his friends he’d just drop the whole thing if Middleton didn’t welcome the project.

Meanwhile, Duany helped soothe Marshall. He had told Marshall to expect this type of community reaction. “It was identical to what we run across everywhere,” Duany said. “But one of the things Marshall was sure about was that he would not compromise. That was unusual. He wanted to do it right or not at all, and he made that very clear. He was not interested in doing anything less than perfect. He didn’t have to do it as a business.”

Marshall’s banking friend, Bob O’Malley, recalled a conversation with Marshall in which Marshall said, “I don’t want to lose more than $10 million on this.” O’Malley smiled. “He was willing to take a risk to prove a point.”

Middleton Hills was important to Marshall on at least two levels: he wanted it to be a model that other land planners would follow, revolutionizing the development of new communities. And, as he stated more than once, “I want to be loved for it.” The recognition from others for this farsighted project was an essential element in his gratification. He wasn’t going to be denied his swan song.

Marshall negotiated with Middleton officials, he lobbied and cajoled, and by August 1994 he thought he had won over the doubters. The Middleton Plan Commission gave a unanimous thumbs-up to Middleton Hills, but then, on Aug. 16, the city council, which had to give final approval, decided to table a vote that had been set. There were more petitions from area residents and lingering concerns about street widths and safety, about alleys as potential sites for crime and drug dealing.

Finally, on Sept. 6 the city council voted unanimously to approve the Middleton Hills development. A compromise had been reached on the streets issue. “I’m delighted,” Marshall told reporters after the council vote. “We’ll be working on drawings immediately. I hope this will be as much of a success as I’d hoped it would be.”

In June 1995, Andres Duany was back in Madison. In February, the Middleton Plan Commission had approved the preliminary plat for Middleton Hills, with the first of the planned 438 homes set to begin construction in the fall.

In August, Erdman & Associates held a ground- breaking at one of the highest points of the property. It was a breezy, sunny day, and the lake sparkled off in the distance, stretching to the familiar Madison skyline. Marshall and his son Tim were joined by Middleton Mayor Dan Ramsey and Dane County Executive Rick Phelps, along with various Middleton Hills planners and designers. Marshall gave a short speech emphasizing his hope that the project would become a model for others to follow, but he seemed tired. The event was captured for the newspapers and on video by Wisconsin Public Television. Although the first homes did not start construction that fall, they did the following spring, when work on a general store also commenced. Marshall Erdman would not see it.

... on Sept 17, Marshall Erdman died. He was 12 days short of his 73rd birthday.

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