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City Council says Reindahl Park homeless camp can remain as it weighs legal issues
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City Council says Reindahl Park homeless camp can remain as it weighs legal issues

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With legal concerns raised about proposed changes to temporary encampments for homeless people, the Madison City Council early Wednesday morning told city staff not to dismantle an encampment in a Far East Side park as it attempts to figure out a future for the camp and its residents.

After a nearly 10-hour meeting, the City Council unanimously voted to delay a decision on a proposed resolution barring city staff from dismantling and evicting people experiencing homelessness from Reindahl Park. The proposal would also direct city staff to find alternative encampment sites for those living in Reindahl and set new criteria for where camps can be established.

On late Monday afternoon, a significantly revised version of the proposal was delivered to the City Attorney's Office, giving the office limited time to review it before Tuesday's meeting, said assistant city attorney Doran Viste.

But based on how it's written, Viste said the proposed changes to the authorized camps — referred to as "temporary permissible encampments," or TPEs — could run the city afoul of state regulations and its own laws.

"We don’t want to vote on something that has like potential legal issues because that doesn't help our neighbors and our fellow Madison residents at Reindahl Park," said Ald. Arvina Martin, 11th District.

Complicating the situation further, the joint city-county health department's soon-to-expire COVID-19 emergency could put the TPEs on shaky legal ground next month, Viste said. Public Health Madison and Dane County announced Tuesday afternoon — hours before the City Council meeting began — the agency intended to let the emergency order, its accompanying coronavirus restrictions and mask mandate expire June 2.

Viste said the TPEs were initially conditioned on the basis of an ongoing emergency, such as declared by Public Health's COVID-19 order. Madison's separate state of emergency declaration expired almost a year ago, he said. It was unclear early Wednesday morning how the expiration would affect city plans to keep its only remaining TPE — Starkweather Creak conservation area on the East Side — open through October.

By 4:19 a.m. Wednesday, visibly exhausted council members opted to refer the proposed TPE changes to five committees for input before it would return to the council. In the interim, the council directed staff not to dismantle the Reindahl encampment.

See how the annual Mifflin Street Block Party has changed in the decades since it began as a rallying point for the anti-war movement in Madison in the spring of 1969.

Proposed changes

Earlier this month, Ald. Juliana Bennett, 8th District, introduced a resolution to prevent people from being evicted from Reindahl — where about 10 people are currently living — after the city had told campers they needed to vacate by May 9. Last week, city staff temporarily backed off clearing out the park in the face of opposition from the campers and advocates.

On Monday, Bennett and seven co-sponsors offered a revised proposal to prevent the encampment from being dismantled, direct city staff to look for alternative TPE locations, and also:

  • Change the siting criteria for TPEs, such as removing a requirement an encampment be at least 500 feet from a residential property and requiring a TPE be within walking distance of a bus line and convenience or grocery store.
  • Move the power to designate and revoke TPEs from the Mayor's Office and city staff to the City Council.
  • Require specific services like drinking water and accessible toilets be provided at all TPEs
  • And not directly tie their establishment to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Viste said the proposed changes could — in effect — make the TPEs permanent campgrounds. But city ordinances and zoning laws ban campgrounds in Madison, he said, and the TPEs could then also violate state law on how campgrounds are regulated and what is required.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended letting homeless encampments remain to minimize spread of the coronavirus among a vulnerable population by not forcing people to move.

The Reindahl Park proposal came at the end of a marathon City Council meeting, with public comment on the topic not beginning until 1:40 a.m. Despite the late hour, many advocates for the campers stuck with the meeting. Some argued it was inappropriate for the council to move the proposal to the end of the agenda.

Supporters of the Reindahl campers said the sole TPE at Starkweather Creak is essentially a swamp filled with ticks and mosquitoes and isn't accessible to emergency vehicles. Forcing the campers to move from a stable living situation can be traumatizing, they said.

"If we are truly a progressive city, then all of our neighbors need to know they are welcome here," said Sara Andrews, who volunteers at Reindahl.

Chris Hoppe said he and other volunteers are helping the campers get to appointments and work on time, while they're also helping with supplies like firewood, fire extinguishes and food.

"We’re building community instead of tearing it down," he said.

Black Business Hub

Also early Wednesday morning, the Madison City Council approved amending a tax incremental financing (TIF) district to support a planned South Side business hub for Black-owned businesses and startups, including a proposed $9.1 million parking ramp at the Village on Park shopping mall where the hub is slated to be located.

Council members amended a TIF district plan near the Village on Park, 2300 S. Park St., to support the Black Business Hub — an $18 million to $25 million project announced by the Urban League of Greater Madison and its partners earlier this year.

In addition to earmarking money for the approximately 250-stall parking ramp, the TIF district plan was amended for:

  • $800,000 in pre-development work for the Black Business Hub
  • $1.1 million for demolition of a building on the north side of the mall and construction of a new parking lot
  • $200,000 for design work on a pilot project to create low-cost, owner-occupied housing.

Ruben Anthony, CEO and president of the Urban League, said parking is already in short supply for the tenants of the Village on Park, and it's needed for the hub to succeed. He said the hub could support 15 to 20 businesses and bring 100 jobs to the community.

"This is the economic shot in the arm the south Madison community has needed for years," Anthony said.

Ald. Grant Foster, 15th District, said the parking ramp is a "mistake" from a policy perspective. While saying he supports the hub, Foster argued the city needs to focus on making Madison less vehicle dependent, especially because Metro Transit's proposed north-south Bus Rapid Transit route is slated to run on South Park Street.

Foster said he didn't believe the city had demonstrated the need for more parking, especially at such a high cost when the money could be invested in public transit.

"There's a perceived shortage at this location and all the evidence we have available, which maybe isn't enough, says there is capacity there," Foster said. "That parking ramp is not needed for the Black Business Hub to move forward."

Other council members who have previously worked at the Village on Park mall said they've personally experienced difficulties finding parking and argued earmarking the money would allow the Urban League to move forward on securing an anchor tenant for the hub.

Despite a lengthy debate, the TIF district plan ultimately passed unanimously after an amendment was made to require city staff to share the results of a parking study and a final parking count determination before any funds are spent on designing the garage.

Fraternity appeal

On Tuesday night, the council approved an appeal from a professional co-ed fraternity to demolish two fraternity houses near the UW-Madison campus and construct an eight-story building to become a new fraternity house and apartments.

Several former and current members of Alpha Chi Sigma, UW-Madison faculty, and supporters of the professional chemistry fraternity spoke for more than an hour in support of the appeal.

They said the useful lives of the two fraternity houses at 619 and 621 N. Lake St. are long expired, the cost to maintain the buildings is more than the fraternity can afford, and the co-ed fraternity offers an inclusive environment for students of diverse backgrounds.

Council members voted 16-3 to overturn the Plan Commission's unanimous denial last November of demolition and conditional use permits for the project. Fourteen voters were needed for the appeal to pass. Last fall, city staff recommended the commission reject the development, finding it did not meet the standards of the Downtown Plan.

The three-story house at 619 N. Lake St. was built in 1909, while the house at 621 N. Lake St. — also three floors — was constructed in 1899. Both are included in the Langdon Street National Register Historic District but are not covered by a local landmark district.

As part of the approval, the council added a condition that the fraternity and its development partner preserve and integrate the facades of the two houses into the new project as much as they can.


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