Vilas Park is one of Madison’s oldest and well-loved parks. When William and Anna Vilas bequeathed 55 acres to the City of Madison in 1905 “for the uses and purposes of a public park and pleasure ground,” they gave residents of the City a public open space that has well served countless users for over one hundred years. Named for their son, Henry Vilas, who succumbed to diabetes as a young man, the park was designed by a well-known period landscape architect, O.C. Simonds, and is home to the Henry Vilas Zoo. Now, with the creation of a new Master Plan for the park, it is ready to establish a new vision for the next hundred years of its legacy.
MSA embarked upon the master planning process in 2019 — a multi-phased effort that included a site inventory and space analysis, robust public engagement program and creation of conceptual designs to guide future park improvements. Working in partnership with Quinn Evans Architects and Urban Assets, MSA worked closely with the City to define a clear and inspiring vision for the future of the park.
First, the team had a lot to learn about the 55-acre historic waterfront property.
Curving along the shoreline of Lake Wingra and encircling an internal lagoon, the MSA team reviewed existing site topography, views and vistas, drainage patterns, shoreline conditions, soil suitability, wetland and floodplain statistics and lagoon probing in order to create a hydrological map and recommendation for the park’s lagoon system. An in-depth tree survey was conducted collecting data for over 700 canopy trees in the park and referencing them into a GIS database identifying the species and photographing their current state. It was also imperative to map existing cherished historical and cultural landmarks such as indigenous mounds, the historic Annie Steward Fountain and some of the park’s original features. This helped create an archaeological map to determine development opportunities and limitations.
Internal transportation and traffic flow was a topic of great importance in the creation of the Master Plan. Vilas Park sees a large number of visitors in every season, so it was important to address traffic circulation and efficient, safe movement throughout. The MSA team conducted reviews of intersection operations and traffic volume at critical park entry and exit points, utilizing Miovision to track traffic patterns and prepare a traffic impact analysis to assess how park upgrades might affect flow. MSA worked with the City of Madison Transportation Division to collect tube counts to analyze speed data of pass-through traffic and study methods of impact reduction of Vilas Park Drive. We also conducted a review of parking capacity, usage and need.
Key to a successful community park is how welcoming and accessible it is to pedestrian, bicycle and multi-modal use. Vilas Park and the Henry Vilas Zoo are regional destinations. The park is also a favorite shortcut route for many people due to the lack of east-west transportation routes in this part of the City. The project team reviewed all existing pedestrian and bicycle facilities within the park, and within connector trails to the park. This included an audit of ADA compliance of all ramps, crosswalks, paths and sidewalks in the vicinity.
The potential redevelopment of any community park is a hot topic, but especially for one like Vilas Park that is beloved to so many generations. As such, the planning process included a robust public engagement and input program to ensure the residents of Madison had a say in the future of the park. Multiple community input meetings, focus group sessions, in-person interviews, youth workshops, meetings with community partners and resident resource groups took place, along with general outreach via an online survey, in which nearly 500 people participated. These sessions captured the wants and needs of the community for Vilas, and informed the creation of conceptual designs for public consideration.
Three preliminary concepts and a draft final master plan were presented to citizens and stakeholders at two public information meetings held in June and December, 2020. Participants were able to share their opinions and insights about the draft concepts and participate in the evolution of the process though a custom ArcGIS StoryMap which detailed the project process, timeline, opportunities, a review of existing and future amenities and virtual site tour. MSA presented the Final Master Plan for Vilas Park to the community in early 2021 and all are looking excitedly forward to watching the transformation unfold.