Madison on Monday began removing the remaining artistic granite stones at Philosopher’s Grove at the crossroads of Capitol Square and State Street to make the area safer.
Mayor Paul Soglin announced the city would remove 33 remaining stones used for sitting and as tables to address continuing behavior problems including drinking, fighting, drug dealing, abusive language, littering, prostitution and using alleys and doorways as toilets. Soglin said some of the perpetrators are homeless but there are others who prey on them.
The move, coming at the request of the Police Department, follows the spring removal of 11 stones to create a pathway through the area that was part of a package of actions including more events such as children’s activities, music and arts and crafts. The new activities have helped, Soglin said, but the behaviors return when programming ends.
“The partial removal, as I suspected, did not work,” Soglin said.
The mayor said he appreciates the continued efforts of the State Street Business Improvement District to plan events in the area, but that complaints and concerns continue. The full removal is intended to “start over” with the space, reducing the concentration of people hanging out there and creating a larger open space more accommodating to programming and perhaps food service, he said.
“It is really unfortunate that this step is needed. These stones, created by local Wisconsin artist Jill Sebastian, are part of a piece of art which have been part of the grove for over 10 years,” Soglin said in announcing the move.
The city will work with the artist to find another location for the stones, which are being removed this week, Soglin said. “It’s a beautiful creation,” he said. “In the right setting, it’s marvelous.”
Also, the city is poised to remove a bus shelter at the top of State Street sometimes used for loitering, drinking, drug dealing and overnight sleeping. Buses instead have been stopping at a shelter 250 feet around the corner on the 10 block of North Carroll Street.
The police have done 168 incident reports in the area between Jan. 1 and Sunday, including many for fights, disturbances, liquor-related violations and drug investigations, new data show. Police recorded 26 incidents in May, 34 in June, 43 in July and 16 in the first nine days of August.
The spring initiatives “didn’t change the behavior,” Central Police District Capt. Carl Gloede said. “It just kind of moved it around.”
Although the homeless frequent the area, “it’s not necessarily a homeless issue,” Gloede stressed. “A lot of these people have homes and just hang out there.”
Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., which has been working with the city and others to address behavior issues, applauded Soglin’s move.
“This area has so much public traffic but they do not feel safe because of the behavior they see,” Schmitz said. “Something needed to be done.”
The crossroads area has many amazing, locally owned businesses struggling with the behavior at their doorsteps while the city pays to clean up the mess each morning, she said.
The removal of the stones alone won’t resolve the problem, but the hope is that it will break up the gathering of larger crowds, Gloede said. “It’s a step toward a solution,” he said. “We’ll still be dealing with individuals and groups and their behavior.”
DMI is working with the police and several Downtown groups on how to address inappropriate behaviors in public spaces, especially the crossroads area, Schmitz said.
The strategies include improving the environmental landscape, increased police presence and surveillance, and enforcement of current laws.
“We have to enforce ordinances that are on the books,” Schmitz said.
Gloede said police have increased presence and enforcement, but “like most issues, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
— Bill Novak of madison.com contributed to this report.