Mike Ivey (May 2, 2015)

It’s been a dozen years since developers first floated plans for Union Corners and the 11.4 acre property still sits vacant and blighted.

For all practical purposes, the site at the corner of Milwaukee Street and East Washington Avenue has turned into an unofficial dog park and long-term parking option for people living out of their vehicles.

“Neighbors and the community at large have been very anxious and patiently waiting to see something begin to happen at the site,” said Linda Lenzke, a founding member of Madison East Side Co-Housing, which is hoping to build owner-occupied housing on the site.

There are signs of progress, however.

UW Health, which is pursuing a new two-story clinic at the corner of East Washington and 6th Street on the Union Corners site, had planned to break ground this summer and is sticking with that schedule despite numerous delays.

“The process has been a lengthy one because the project is complex and involves many parties: the community, the city, the developer and prospective tenants,” said UW Health spokeswoman Lisa Brunette.

The $20 million clinic at Union Corners would replace UW Health’s aging East Towne Clinic. Expected to open in late fall 2016, the new clinic would have approximately 60,000 square feet of space on two levels. Parking includes 150 stalls in a surface lot and 100 stalls underground.

It would provide primary care during normal business hours along with urgent care from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekends.

Gorman & Company, which purchased the entire Union Corners site from the city in 2013, is also starting to move. It is looking to develop Wisconsin’s first Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, along with affordable housing at the site.
Last week, Gorman was awarded $8.5 million in affordable housing credits from WHEDA. Those credits will help finance a $13.1 million mixed-use project that reserves 76 units for renters with low incomes.

The first floor will feature the 28,000 square foot Fresh Thyme market and 9,000 additional square feet of retail. The project includes 200 underground and 48 surface parking spaces. Plans also show bike parking, an outdoor space with a small open air pavilion and a serpentine path that connects 6th Street to Milwaukee Street within the development site.

East side Ald. Marsha Rummel and Ald. Larry Palm are co-hosting a neighborhood meeting on the Gorman proposal on May 12 at 6 p.m. in Fellowship Hall of Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago St.

Gorman is still negotiating with the city on tax increment financing for its project but company architect Marc Ott said the developer will “most likely start construction in April of 2016.”

Fresh Thyme is an organic grocery chain that has launched an ambitious expansion across the Midwest and is moving its headquarters from Phoenix to Downers Grove, Illinois. The company is looking to open 100 stores over the next six years, including 18 in the Chicago area. It already has stores in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana, with more planned this year in Minnesota and Missouri.

Fresh Thyme caters to health-minded shoppers and competes with businesses like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s. It touts local produce on a seasonal basis.

Lenzke said an organic market would dovetail nicely with the co-housing projects being planned at Union Corners. Co-housing is a concept developed in Scandinavia where owners hold titles to their individual units while sharing community space, making group decisions and cooking meals.

Two efforts dubbed Sister East and Sister West are looking to develop new “sister” communities side-by-side at Union Corners. The Sister West team is looking at a 2016 groundbreaking with Sister East is looking toward a 2017 build timeline.

“We remain very hopeful that this will happen,” said John Steines, an active member of the Schenk Atwood Starkweather Yahara Neighborhood Association. “Co-housing takes longer to plan and the community really would like to see this model here. That we might have two sister co-housing pods at Union Corners is incredible.”

Madison has been a Midwest leader in co-housing, with several projects built here in the past 15 years, including the Village Cohousing with 18 units on Mound Street on the near west side, the 30-unit Troy Gardens Cohousing on the north side and the 40-unit Arboretum Cohousing that opened in 2008 near Vilas Zoo.