A proposal by a Denver firm to revitalize the Lake Monona waterfront through a mix of ecological features and new development was consistently ranked as the top choice by more than 2,000 respondents to a city of Madison survey.

One of the three finalists for Madison’s Lake Monona Waterfront design challenge.

The proposal by design firm Sasaki ranked highest in all questions posed to the public in the Parks Department’s survey, which evaluated all three finalists and their visions for a revitalized waterfront between Olin and Law parks along John Nolen Drive.

Survey results were first discussed Monday by the Lake Monona Waterfront Ad Hoc Committee, with members not yet divulging their own preferences as they take more time to read through feedback provided by survey respondents.

Committee members will discuss their preferences next week, then at the end of the month will say which plan they prefer. The committee expects to pick the design firm to move forward with by mid-May under an amended schedule that extends the decision process by two weeks.

Just under half of all survey respondents ranked Sasaki first in each of the questions posed by the survey and gave its plan high scores when asked whether it promoted sustainability and created equitable access for all. Sasaki ranked especially high when respondents were asked to consider whether its plan reflected the Ho-Chunk Nation’s cultural connection to the land.

The design by New York-based James Corner Field Operations, which would transform John Nolen Drive into a green, tree-lined boulevard and animate the lakefront with four parks, often ranked second with survey respondents. Agency Landscape + Planning of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which would create three “districts” and feature water bridges and “Monona Hill” to connect the parks on either side of Monona Terrace, consistently ranked last.

In August 2022, Madison selected three finalists in its Lake Monona Waterfront Design Challenge, aimed at creating a “visionary, inclusive and environmentally focused master plan” for 1.7 miles of shoreline and 17 acres of Madison’s foremost public lakefront. Planners are looking for concepts that can better connect neighborhoods and residents to the lake, improve water quality and preserve the lake’s cultural history. Take a brief tour of this stretch of shoreline, which runs from Williamson Street to Olin Park.

Sasaki’s plan also came in first in a separate survey led by Madison-based community engagement firms EQT By Design and Urban Assets, which focused on tapping into underrepresented minorities through organizations such as Centro Hispano and the Urban League of Greater Madison. Feedback from those respondents praised Sasaki for its commitment to addressing Ho-Chunk history and climate change.

The Ad Hoc Committee is expected to recommend a preferred master plan to the mayor, City Council and Park Commission by Sept. 1. While a master plan doesn’t have to be completed by the end of the year, Parks Division Landscape Architect Mike Sturm said whichever design is chosen will inform the city’s engineering department as it designs the John Nolen Drive project.

Visitors to the Lake Monona waterfront explore the west shore of the lake from the Capital City State Trail on Monday. The Lake Monona Waterfront Ad Hoc Committee is deep into its work analyzing three proposals for a massive redevelopment of the space, discussing results from a public opinion survey this week before scoring each proposal on a number of criteria. 


The Lake Monona waterfront project is tied to the city’s transformation of a two-story building and 3.65 acres of shoreline next to Olin Park, purchased by the city in 2019, into a community amenity with Parks Division offices; the reconstruction of John Nolen Drive, slated for 2026; and creation of a “Destination District” around the Alliant Energy Center, aimed at connecting the South Side to the lake and Downtown.

Preliminary cost estimates for the projects range from $150 million to $250 million.

The city’s survey asked respondents to consider which plan they felt best reflects city priorities, presents the greatest potential for lakefront and quality of life improvement and would draw the most visitors.

Many who provided written feedback in the survey indicated Sasaki did the best job balancing ecological impacts with history. Those who liked Agency’s and James Corner’s plans tended to appreciate the attention to green spaces.

Taking advantage of the season’s warmest temperatures to date, a visitor to the Lake Monona shoreline bicycles along the Capital City State Trail on Monday.


Sasaki’s design would prioritize an ecologically vibrant waterfront with green infrastructure like rain gardens and wetlands. It divides the site into four districts. One of the districts, “Law Park Ledge” to the east of Monona Terrace, would include a new park over John Nolen Drive, an amphitheater, a boat house and a restaurant.

Monona Terrace staff also indicated support for the Sasaki proposal, stating it would accommodate future expansions. Agency’s and James Corner’s plans would need to be approved by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation as they both would modify the exterior of the building and would require either the removal or renovation of the parking ramps, which would negatively impact Monona Terrace’s ability to host events.

‘The Wild Lakeshore: Monona Lakefront Park’

‘Voices of the Lake: Monona’s Waterfront.’

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Landscape Architecture 


Kimberly Wethal