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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Environmental activists worry UW-Madison’s West Campus District Plan not sustainable enough

The plan will serve as a framework for an estimated 30 years of initiatives and construction projects for the research and work-focused zone of UW-Madison.

Environmental advocates at UW-Madison worry a 30-year plan to redevelop the university’s West Campus District lacks sustainability initiatives needed to combat the climate crisis. 

The sweeping plan details a landscape overhaul for an area of “untapped potential” stretching from the Agricultural Engineering Laboratory to the University Hospital that includes new research, housing, dining and parking facilities. 

Development will be done in partnership with University Research Park, a UW-Madison affiliate whose agreement with the UW System Board of Regents allows private development on state-owned land. The Board of Regents cannot typically approve projects without the state Legislature’s approval.

However, some students are concerned about the plan’s environmental accommodations. Winston Thompson, an intern with nonprofit climate organization 350 Wisconsin and a member of ASM, told The Daily Cardinal UW-Madison could be doing more for sustainability.

Thompson made posts on both 350 Wisconsin and ASM’s Instagram accounts advising students the West Campus District Plan (WCDP) “continues to apply the same unsustainable building practices used for decades in Wisconsin” and recommended students provide feedback to the university. 

Thompson’s biggest worries are UW-Madison’s use of fossil fuels, the impact of demolitions on Lake Mendota and housing affordability. 

“Historically, [UW-Madison] has shown a lack of commitment to sustainability,” Thompson said. 

Thompson also singled out the lack of sustainability initiatives in university materials. In his view, UW-Madison would’ve marketed sustainability initiatives had they been included in the plan.

As of August 8, the WCDP website uses the word sustainability once — to describe the role of Affiliated Engineers Inc., the mechanical, electrical and plumbing and sustainability partner, in the plan. 

Although a March 2023 presentation to the Board of Regents estimated “making district plan recommendations to the [Board] in July 2023,” John Lucas, vice chancellor of communications at UW-Madison, said the plan currently has “no set date for finalization.” 

Lucas added the plan is still in early stages, but it will be developed in conjunction with campus sustainability initiatives to minimize environmental impacts.

What sustainability initiatives do students want?

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350 Wisconsin’s recommendations to increase sustainability in the West Campus plan include adding LEED sustainability certifications for buildings, heat pumps, solar panels and electric vehicle charging, Thompson said. 

Lot 60, the university’s largest surface-level parking lot, poses a lingering question, with community feedback causing planning on the lot to shift to a later date. 

Thompson proposed increased public transit in lieu of expansions to parking, but recognized many low-income workers rely on Lot 60 for parking. Without other parking solutions, Thompson said he wouldn’t support eliminating it or other lots. 

District 8 Alder MGR Govindarajan, a member of the Joint Campus Area Committee composed of both Madison and UW System representatives, said UW-Madison is working with the committee to incorporate public concerns.

Thompson similarly said the university voiced intent to discuss suggestions with 350 Wisconsin.

UW-Madison officials held three open house events in February to hear student and community feedback on the West Campus plan. But Thompson and Govindarajan worry about UW-Madison engaging in feedback conferences during the summer, when students may be less likely to be engaged in conversations about the plan’s future.

“There’s been a lot of frustration from students who don’t realize that there’s a major construction project, a 30-year plan, that’s going to be happening on a big part of campus,” Thompson said. “I think they’ve been frustrated that they haven’t really had a say in it.”

And without a clear plan for sustainability strategies, Thompson worried the negative environmental impacts of the plan’s 30-year implementation could last well beyond 30 years.

“It’s crazy to think that 80 years from now, when people [currently] going to school have grandchildren, their grandchildren could be going to school with buildings not up to what they should be with the climate crisis.” 

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Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.

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