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At Madison Children’s Museum, a new play place replaces parking spots

The Capital Times

By Lindsay Christians

Four years ago, when the Madison Children’s Museum moved to its new, larger location across from the Capitol, it had something other downtown museums didn’t: its own parking lot.

The 47-space, two-level, 50-year-old lot at East Dayton and North Hamilton streets was a boon to visitors with limited mobility, parents with strollers and members of the museum, who received a discount on parking.

It was also a fairly significant revenue stream for the museum.

But after considering the cost to repair the lot — $300,000, plus more in subsequent years for maintenance — the museum decided the space will have more value as an urban outdoor play place for kids.

“The investment it would take to keep (the parking lot) working is far more than that revenue stream,” said Debbie Gilpin, executive director of the Madison Children’s Museum. “It’s just not worth doing.”

Before the lot closed on Nov. 10, Gilpin wrote a blog post explaining the museum’s choice, riffing on a Joni Mitchell lyric: “They unpaved the parking lot and put up a play paradise.”

“Our visitors have enjoyed the convenience of parking on site,” Gilpin wrote. “The lot has provided a good, steady source of income for the museum. So we don’t take this decision lightly.”

It’s hardest for strollers, because street parking is very limited and the two parking garages that are closest don’t have elevators.

Still, the lot was small and filled quickly, Gilpin said.

“It was a nice perk,” said MCM marketing manager Jonathan Zarov. “I don’t want to downplay the fact that people appreciated it and we were happy to provide it, but it’s not what we’re here to do.”

Earlier this year, the museum closed the top part of the lot and built a “FunkYard” with recycled materials, like cable spools, pallets, material from billboards, sails from sailboats and more.

Director of exhibits Brenda Baker designed the FunkYard, Zarov said, and families loved it. There were scooters to ride, a place to dress up, plants and flags and lots of color.

“We’re going back to what we do well,” said Zarov. “We feel like there’s not a lot of dedicated play space downtown, where kids can play from all neighborhoods and income levels and all communities together.

“It relates to our mission. Providing parking spaces was never part of our mission.”

The FunkYard will return for a few special events this winter, then more consistently in the warmer months.

Bigger changes, like leveling the lot or putting in a more permanent outdoor exhibit, will take longer. Gilpin invites community feedback, because whatever the museum chooses, it will more than likely require significant fundraising.

Current suggestions include a park and urban growing space.

“My daughter would melt down with joy if they put in an ice skating rink,” wrote Ben Munson for Tone Madison.

“The Children’s Museum has given up the parking revenue from this lot in order to serve something greater,” Munson wrote. “It’s glorious to watch a beloved Madison institution slip the surly bonds of parking stress.”

And while a proposed music venue on East Washington Avenue recently lost city support in part due to parking concerns, there’s also a move toward “place-making” over parking in the city.

“We just love how alive it is out there now,” Gilpin said. “You come around the corner and see all this activity … it’s a beautiful, noticeable space. We want to be a vibrant space downtown.”

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