Change is afoot at University Research Park — at least, if the park’s leaders and tenants have their way — and it could urbanize the sprawling tech-transfer center into a place where you can buy a cup of coffee, grab lunch or play a game of racquetball.
“We want to evolve … so we stay fresh,” said the park’s managing director, Aaron Olver.
A few decades ago, the land on either side of Whitney Way between Mineral Point Road and Tokay Boulevard was a patch of farmland, still green and untouched as West Side development boomed nearby. In the spring and summer, the grassy curves of the Charmany and Rieder farms served as testing grounds for UW-Madison horticulturists.
Then, in 1984, UW-Madison, with approval from the City Council, created University Research Park. Today, some of the area’s most illustrious biotech companies — such as stem cell manufacturer Cellular Dynamics International and cancer test developer Exact Sciences Corp. — are tenants. So are dozens of startups, as well as law firms, banks and two child-care centers.
University Research Park is now home to 142 companies and 15 nonprofits, health care groups and trade associations, with more than 3,800 employees in all. At 260 acres, it is park-like, with wide expanses of lawn and prairie plants, where coyotes, foxes and wild turkeys roam.
Food carts roll in several times a week during non-winter months. But the park lacks restaurants, fitness centers and service businesses, like dry cleaners.
So, research park officials, with the blessing of the Board of Regents, are trying to change that.
“Our tenants want more coffee shops, they want walkability. We can make University Research Park more innovative by doing this,” Olver said. “We are on the hunt now for food and beverage and fitness operations that want to establish in the park.”
They want to add buildings, including possibly homes and apartments, and a hotel. Olver said walking paths, benches and public art could be added, too.
Attorney Joe Boucher, of the Neider & Boucher law firm, 401 Charmany Drive, said it’s about time.
“I’m thrilled. Why should we have to get in our cars to go to a restaurant, to go to a coffee shop?” Boucher said. “When you compare office parks, it’s a spectacular place; I love working there. But we don’t have some of the amenities other places have.”
Tom Foti, vice president and general manager of the Madison site for Aldevron, a North Dakota-based biotech research product manufacturer, thinks a hotel could be a useful addition.
“There are so many people that come to Madison and come to this park,” Foti said. If a hotel were added, with conference rooms, a coffee shop and other amenities, “you’d have people who would stay in those facilities and then walk to meetings,” he said. “You’d have more foot traffic in the park. A higher concentration of foot traffic and activity in the park would lead to a more vibrant community.”
Going back to its roots
Olver said the current plans will take the research park’s concept back to its early incarnations.
When UW-Madison officials laid out their ideas for University Research Park in 1983, they envisioned it not only as a place whose buildings would nurture technology transfer from campus research labs. The grounds were also to include a conference center/hotel complex, some retail space and several hundred housing units that were later scrapped from the plan.
As the park developed, most of the buildings were built for technology companies, many with UW ties, and business services companies sprouted. First Business Bank is located in the park; so is Venture Investors, a longtime investor in very young, promising technology and biotechnology companies. UW Health opened a clinic there.
An incubator building, the MGE Innovation Center, was created in 1998 as a place where startups could lease small offices and labs and share conference space, and an accelerator building was added later to give companies space to expand nearby.
Most of the research park’s land has been developed based on the original standards that were common in the 1980s, modeled after such leaders as Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Restrictive rules called for wide building setbacks and a park-like appearance.
But times have changed, Olver said.
“When this place was built, the city and the neighborhood wanted it to be sparsely populated. Today, the city wants us to be good urbanists, with mixed use of the property,” he said.
So the UW Board of Regents approved changes in October to make the research park more “campus-like,” Olver said. “We are positioning the park to evolve over time.”
Opening acreage to new development
Under the old rules, only one plat of land would still be available for development. But the changes mean the park is now opening more of its acreage to developers. There is room for additional tech companies, as well as food and retail businesses and more, Olver said.
The vacant plat — five acres along Mineral Point Road, next to First Business Bank — illustrates the way the research park hopes to change.
Under the old restrictions, that site could house no more than a 50,000-square-foot building. But the property is “actually huge,” Olver said, big enough to house an entire city block Downtown, such as the Old National Bank (formerly AnchorBank) block along the Capitol Square.
“We’re not saying we want to put 800,000 square feet (of development) there, but maybe we could put 200,000 square feet,” Olver said.
Tyler Noel, president of Compass Properties, a Madison commercial real estate development firm, said he is interested in building some kind of eating establishment, possibly with other retail amenities, at Science Drive and Mineral Point Road in the research park.
Noel said he has no specific plans at this point. But he said the new development rules were one reason Compass bought its second office building in University Research Park in January. The four-story Park West I office building, 406 Science Drive, is a twin to the Park West II building Compass bought in 2013.
University Research Park owns most of the research parkland, but Compass has a land lease on 11 acres around its office buildings, Noel said, and could add a mixed-use, commercial building, two or three stories high, if UW and city officials approve.
“We would like to put some retail amenities along Mineral Point Road. It could be a separate building or it could be an addition (to Compass’ buildings),” Noel said.
Building a more creative community
Olver said housing could be added at various locations, as well. “If there are developers that see housing opportunities that make sense to the marketplace and the design, we would consider them,” Olver said. “Housing creates a real sense of place.”
Building a feeling of community is something the park’s tenants want to pursue. Aldevron’s Foti said meeting up with others in the park can stimulate discussions and new ideas.
“I think that just like the town center at the Discovery Building (on the UW-Madison campus), we’re trying to create an environment where people connect around food … whether it’s coffee or a craft brewer,” Foti said.
The Discovery Building, 330 N. Orchard St., built in 2010, houses the public Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and the private, nonprofit Morgridge Institute for Research. Its main-floor Town Center features two restaurants, tables and chairs, and teaching labs based on the belief that when researchers and scientists from different fields exchange ideas, creativity and innovation can flourish.
The same can hold true at University Research Park, Foti said.
“We have a gift of a concentration of companies here. We have to continue to be creative, to make sure we are maximizing each other’s value to compete globally,” Foti said.
Olver said the park’s transformation won’t take place quickly.
“We’re really setting a long-term path for the park,” he said. “We don’t need to fix anything that’s not broken. It’s more about how do we want to evolve to suit the tech community in the future.”