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Turning point: South Madison is changing, which has some residents worried they'll be priced out

Turning point: South Madison is changing, which has some residents worried they'll be priced out

When Melva McShan Bishop and her family moved from Milwaukee to south Madison in the 1960s, she was shocked to see hogs, chickens and outhouses in her neighbors’ yards.

“It was just like a little country town,” she said in a collection of interviews edited and compiled over a two-year period beginning in 1998 by David Giffey in “The People’s Stories of South Madison.” 

She went on to say that neighborhood life, at least for kids, revolved around the neighborhood center.

“It wasn’t just a black community center, because the neighborhood was very diverse,” she said.

The south side’s strategic position as the southern gateway to downtown, connection to major employment and education hubs, and its proximity to transportation corridors make the area prime for development.

It is also home to the city’s most diverse population, with pockets of African Americans, Latinos, Hmong and Nepalese. Though pricey real estate can be found along the south shore of Monona Bay, with houses that look out across the water at a dramatic skyline, there are also low-income apartment complexes, some managed by the city’s Community Development Authority.

And though south Madison has evolved over the years, many say the area has not historically been seen as a place for public or private investment.

“South Madison has been long forgotten,” said Ald. Sheri Carter, whose family has lived in south Madison for over four decades. Her District 14 straddles South Park Street and extends from Wingra Creek to Nine Springs Creek. “It was there, but not on anybody’s radar.”

South Madison plan boundary map

But that’s all changing. In 2022, the city will absorb the town of Madison and, with it, about 2,500 residents, 6,000 parcels of land and potentially millions of dollars in public infrastructure improvements. To guide the future of south Madison for the next 10 to 15 years, the city is working on updating a neighborhood plan created in 2005, in part, to prepare for the annexation.

Also, Dane County is working on a major redevelopment plan for the Alliant Energy Center campus, a 164-acre swath of land between Wingra Creek, John Nolen Drive and Rimrock Road. 

“It’s not going to stay the same. It’s just not,” said Napoleon Smith, a resident of south Madison for over 30 years and former president of the City Council.

As major developments take hold along South Park Street and alter the landscape of the neighborhoods, residents are concerned about maintaining the area’s affordability. South Madison is one of the last few affordable neighborhoods in the city where housing is at a premium due to a low vacancy rate and influx of new residents. 

“We’re nervous,” said Isadore Knox, president of the South Metropolitan Planning Council, about the changes he is seeing in terms of development and housing costs. “It’s scary. We knew it was coming, but it’s coming really fast.”

South side resident Antoinette Neal, who works in real estate, spoke to the tenuous balance between investing in a neighborhood and improving it to the point where longtime residents are priced out.

“I would love to live in a place that is well-developed, well taken care of. Everyone deserves that,” Neal said. “But a hike in prices, I don’t know that the people that are there are going to be able to stay there and where are these people going to go?”


Aerial showing Rimrock Road crossing the Beltline near the Coliseum. Dated July 30, 1968.

‘Cosmopolitan in character’

A 1902 Wisconsin State Journal article described south Madison as a “suburban addition to the Capital City, beautifully located on the south shore of Monona Bay. It has a population of about 400, cosmopolitan in character.”

The area became home to working, middle-class families and grew quickly in the late 1950s when the ethnically diverse Greenbush neighborhood — where West Washington Avenue meets Park Street — was bulldozed in the name of “urban renewal.” Its growth continued when the John Nolen Drive causeway was built in 1966, increasing the connection between south Madison and downtown.

In “The People’s Stories of South Madison,” resident Richard Harris argued that south Madison was left behind economically because of its origins.

“South Madison back in the ’30s and ’40s was considered a vast swamp and wasteland by city fathers, not worth putting that much into,” Harris said during his interview. “That myth is carried out today, that south Madison is still not worthy of east, west and north.”

Carter described south Madison as a place people “pass through,” with a history of residents fighting for small improvements.

Jeff Richter, who moved to the corner of Fisher and Bram streets in 1995, recalled the drug dealing and prostitution that happened there as he tried to get the city to pay attention to “lowly south Madison.” Being overlooked motivated residents to build a community with “families taking care of each other,” Richter said.

Today’s residents are still fighting for south Madison to be recognized. South Madison can refer to neighborhoods immediately south of the isthmus like Bay Creek, Burr Oaks, Bram’s Addition and Capitol View. Park Street runs through these neighborhoods like a spine and bisects with the West Beltline Highway. 

But the south side also includes neighborhoods south of the Beltline in the area of Rimrock and Moorland roads. Depending on who you ask, residents in neighborhoods along the shores of Lake Monona in Broadway, Simpson, Waunona and Bridge-Lakepoint identify as south side residents, too.

Ananda Mirilli, a member of the Madison School Board and 16-year resident of the south side, is a fierce advocate for her neighborhood.

At a Jan. 15 Cap Times Talk on gentrification, Mirilli talked about the contrast between bicycle infrastructure and access to fresh produce on the south side, where both are limited, compared to the rest of the city. A lack of grocery stores came into focus as residents confronted the possible loss of the Park Street Pick ‘n Save last spring.

“At the same time that we sort of give gold stars for all the beauty and all the things that Madison offers, we have to figure out how we're going to reconcile with parts of the city that don’t have that, that we don’t invest (in) or that we say not this year, next year. Not in this budget, the next budget, the next election, the next something,” she said.

Carter said fighting for south Madison has made residents more protective of their neighborhood.

“It has made people come out and stand together to get some things done, and we had to do it ourselves,” Carter said. “Whether you lived there when you were growing up and now you don’t, or whether you still live there, you know that we had to fight for everything.”  

Carter pointed to the Arbor Gate development on the south side of the Beltline at Todd Drive as a catalyst for future investment in south Madison. The $55 million project, which houses Bonfyre American Grille, replaced a strip of aging retail buildings with two six-story office and retail towers on six acres in 2007.

“They were predicting gloom and doom,” Carter said. “They saw how successful it was, and so you can build in south Madison is what I’m really saying.”

Out of the 2005 neighborhood plan came the acquisition of the Villager Mall property and the construction of Access Community Health Center, Goodman South Madison Library and headquarters for the Urban League of Greater Madison. Also, the city installed its first splash park just off Badger Road, improved sidewalks leading to the Goodman Pool and preserved single-family residential areas. 

Madison College opened a south-side campus last summer. And the area could also be the site of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s newest elementary school.

And there’s the Southside Raiders Football and Cheerleading Team, a program that has fostered community pride for 50 years.

“You think about great communities and neighborhoods, it has all of those assets,” said Knox, who is also the co-director of the Raiders.

Today, Peloton Residences, a T. Wall Enterprises development that includes 162 apartment units and 12,000 square feet of retail space, is under construction at the prominent corner of South Park Street and Fish Hatchery Road. The vacant Truman Olson site, located on the 1400 block of South Park Street, is slated for rental housing and a grocery store. And SSM Health is redeveloping its clinic on Fish Hatchery Road. 

Some longtime residents say the attention on south Madison is overdue.

“It's always been on the back burner, but now that it's the last place for development in the city, now the microscope comes,” said Knox.

040519-wsj-news-truman-olson (CT)

The vacant Truman Olson lot at 1402 S. Park St. will be the future home of a grocery store and rental housing. To the right is the Pick 'n Save grocery store at 1312 S. Park St.

‘Last frontier’ of affordable housing

The south side’s reputation for diversity — ethnic and financial — is changing. 

From 2010 to 2017, the proportion of people of color living in neighborhoods south of Wingra Creek dropped by 7.9%. The only neighborhood which saw a larger decline was Waunona and Bridge-Lakepoint at 12.9%. Such drops are indicators of potential displacement.

Dan McAuliffe, a city planner and co-author of a report assessing factors contributing to displacement and gentrification, said the decrease could also be attributed to fewer people of color moving into new developments in south Madison, which may not indicate displacement.

This change, combined with a 27% increase in household income, concentrated poverty and low rates of educational attainment puts south Madison at the tipping point of gentrification.

The analysis identified that south Madison may be in the early stages — known as Early Type 1 — of gentrification or exhibit conditions leading toward displacement. Renters, people of color, those living in poverty and without higher education degrees are at most risk of being priced out.

“That means that we have what is defined as a vulnerable population,” McAuliffe said.

Gentrification can mean investments in a neighborhood and changes in an area’s characteristics due to an influx of more affluent residents and businesses. Some of these changes are “part of living in a city,” said Matt Wachter, the city’s director of Planning and Community and Economic Development, during the Cap Times Talk.

But some changes and the speed at which they happen in a neighborhood can be a cause for concern.

Technically defined as a market-driven racial and socioeconomic reconfiguration of urban communities that have suffered from a history of disinvestment, gentrification can lead to displacement of current residents of a neighborhood.

Displacement occurs when “households are forced to move out of a neighborhood because things like prices are rising so quickly that people can't stay where they are, and they're getting pushed out,” Wachter said. “That's the thing that we really are probably most concerned about.”

“When the city talks about gentrification, we're talking about some of that happening really, really quickly, and a neighborhood rapidly changing in sort of the racial composition of the neighborhood, the incomes of people in the neighborhood,” Wachter said. “All of that is disruptive and is not the normal sense of things.”

Within south Madison, McAuliffe noted stark differences between Bay Creek and neighborhoods further down Park Street, underscoring the vulnerability of the area.

For example, the rates of educational attainment are much higher in Bay Creek, where 61% of residents have college degrees. In the area that includes Bram’s Addition, Burr Oaks and Capitol View, 19% of adults have college degrees.

 In Bay Creek, 20% of residents identify as people of color, compared to 67% in the rest of south Madison. Thirteen percent of families in Bay Creek have incomes considered below 185% of the poverty level, compared to 61% in other south Madison neighborhoods.

“One of the emerging stories we see with south Madison is that gradient,” McAuliffe said.

Changes in the affordability of south Madison’s housing stock has not been as pronounced, McAuliffe said.

“It’s still hanging on to a lot of affordability,” he said.

Citywide, the value of an average single-family home increased for the sixth straight year in 2019, jumping 5.7% to $300,967. Homes in the Burr Oaks-Lincoln School area, where average values rose 0.3% to $145,300, were considered the most affordable in Madison. Two neighborhoods, Bram’s Addition and East Broadway, had average values under $160,000.

In 2017, five neighborhoods had homes with values under $150,000.

“It's pretty affordable to live in south Madison,” Carter said. “It's the last frontier, and I don't want to lose that.”

 McAuliffe pointed to how other neighborhoods developed outward in terms of affordability. For example, when homes in the Marquette neighborhood increased in price, residents moved further east to Atwood and then to Eastmorland.

“When we think about the past patterns we’ve seen with affordability, it’s not just a certain area,” McAuliffe said. “It’s almost like a slow wave. That’s certainly a concern.”

Though residents are concerned that new development on Park Street could drive up rents in the area, McAuliffe said data from the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, home to the high-rise apartment buildings on East Washington Avenue, might show that growth could hold down rents of existing affordable units.

“Those most affordable units in Tenney-Lapham have been appreciating at really just the rate of inflation, which is the best we can hope for,” he said.

McAuliffe cautioned that the city cannot say with certainty that creating new housing will maintain affordability of existing units, but it could show that maintaining naturally-occurring affordable units is as important as building new units. 


The 2005 South Madison Plan paved the way for the acquisition of The Villager Mall, shown above, an upgrade to the commercial space and the construction of Access Community Health Center, South Madison Library and headquarters for the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Building wealth

Reports cannot capture the lived experiences of those south Madison residents who feel the pressures of the city’s housing market.

“It misses my story and the stories of people that when they get to their apartment complex, and they see every other neighbor with a pink slip, saying that they're being evicted because they can no longer afford to pay for their rental,” Mirilli said. “The issue is people like me are in that constant fear.”

Madison’s consistent growth in population puts pressure on the city’s housing market. Housing and rental prices are going up across the city because of a housing shortage and low vacancy rate.

“We're adding lots and lots of people,” Wachter said. “We're not adding units quite as quickly.”

From 2007 through 2015, nine out of 10 new Madison residents rented, and new development has been primarily multifamily units or apartment complexes. The vacancy rate fell from 5.6% to 2.8%. Wachter said 5% is considered a healthy vacancy rate that creates a housing market where people have choices.

“There's some balance of power between landlords and tenants,” Wachter said.

Taking in the new apartments in south Madison, Smith, the former City Council president, anticipates a transformation.

“The people who live in south Madison are probably not going to be able to live in those units,” Smith said. “Right off the bat, the rent is going to be more than they’re paying currently. You’re going to see this neighborhood change.”

When amenities like coffee shops, parks and bike paths start popping up in neighborhoods, real estate values are likely to increase. A challenge for the city is to find a balance between investing in the neighborhood and maintaining affordability for those who already live there.

“All of those great investments that make a place more desirable to live in, also can have the effect of making them more expensive, and people who can pay more are going to come and bid up the price of real estate of units,” Wachter said.

Smith sees nudging renters down the path to home ownership as a way to create stability in a neighborhood. Wealth building does not happen while renting, Smith said.

“You might be able to afford your rent this year and next year and the year after,” Smith said. “If you don't eventually own it, you’re going to be pushed out of the neighborhood.”

In Madison, racial and ethnic disparities are evident in rates of home ownership. According to a city report on fair housing choice, white households are 2.5 times more likely to be homeowners compared to black and Latino households. 

Neal, the real estate agent, said she sees both sides of the story in south Madison. As a renter and south side resident of about 16 years, she recognizes the struggle to find and keep quality, affordable housing. But she also sees the need for change and investment in the area.

“We need to look at more ways that we can actually help people get into homeownership, because that's also an investment. That's building wealth for generations when you get into ownership,” Neal said. “But we also have to look at the income bracket, and we have to discuss raising people's income level to be able to sustain a mortgage.”

PENN PARK 15.jpg

In May 2018, the south Madison community celebrated the grand re-opening of Penn Park at 2101 Fisher St. following a $1.5 million investment.

Community in the ‘driver’s seat’

As the city works through the neighborhood planning process for south Madison, residents point to housing affordability as a top concern.

City planners are hearing these fears from residents participating in the planning process. The South Madison Plan will ultimately update the plan adopted in 2005. It will guide development in south Madison — including what is currently the town of Madison — for the next 10 to 15 years.

The process also includes creating an inventory and transition plan for the town, a market study to help determine viable businesses, concepts for the Village on Park, a brownfield assessment and grants for assessment, site investigation and remedial action planning.

“Front and center, gentrification and displacement has really become some of the main issues,” city planner Jeff Greger said.

Getting ahead of displacement in south Madison is a priority for Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. 

“As exciting as it is to see new development coming down Park Street, I think that we have to be really careful to make sure that we are developing that area for the people that are already there and for the businesses that are already there and not displacing people in the process,” Rhodes-Conway said.

The mayor included $500,000 for a new program in the 2020 Capital Budget to help small businesses and nonprofits purchase their own properties and $135,000 to help residents purchase homes or renovate their properties.

Additionally, the budget includes $1 million for land banking — a strategy that allows the city to purchase a property and reserve it for future development. The city used this strategy to preserve the Truman Olson site.

Also, Rhodes-Conway pointed out tax increment financing and the affordable housing fund are resources the city has in its toolbox.

“All of those resources that the city has are potentially at play in south Madison, so that we can make sure that we're both promoting that ownership and also creating more opportunities,” Rhodes-Conway said.  

Jule Stroick, a city planner who worked on the 2005 South Madison Plan and is involved in the current planning process, called for strategic investment and underscored the importance of listening to the community.

For example, she said improving Penn Park was a stated priority of the neighborhood during the 2005 planning process. In 2018, residents celebrated the grand opening of south Madison’s “home field” following a $1.5 million investment. Residents also called for redeveloping the Village on Park. 

Just as important as determining what the neighborhood wants to see in the future, Stroick said, is identifying the “sacred” and “cultural” elements that would be a disruption to the community if the city removed them.


Antoinette Neal, a resident of the south side and a local real estate agent, wants to see more people on the path to home ownership.

The planning process has included three community input sessions, resident surveys, communication with the area’s schools and a local business market study. Also, the city is partnering with three community organizations — Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, NewBridge and the Catholic Multicultural Center — to form action teams and continue gathering public input from residents who may not attend city meetings.

“Everybody has to look to the next generation,” Stroick said. “We'll do the planning, but I think that other important part is that implementation. How do you get it done? And that is that aligning of the stars, aligning not only the city but aligning other partners in the community to make it go forward.”

 To make sure south Madison remains accessible for current residents, Rhodes-Conway said the community has to be in the “driver’s seat.”

“We need to be thinking about who is making the decisions and who has input into what is being developed and built,” Rhodes-Conway said. “That that should be, primarily, the folks that are already there.” 

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