After several summers of complaints about criminal behavior, the city is considering major changes to the layout of the crossroads of State Street and Capitol Square.
A focused planning effort is only beginning, but the result could include moving some or all of the artistic granite stones in the area known as Philosopher’s Grove, removing some of the approximate 18 shade trees there, and rethinking the cul-de-sac at the top of West Mifflin Street that leads to the Square.
Mayor Paul Soglin has asked the city Planning Division to lead an effort that will involve multiple city agencies and include public input, all of which is supposed to produce an implementation plan for the spring.
A group of business and property owners in the area, Downtown Madison Inc. and the Downtown Business Improvement District “strongly support” physical changes to help curb drinking, fighting, abusive language, littering, drug dealing, prostitution and the use of alleys and doorways as toilets.
“It’s been a challenge and continues to be a problem,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who represents the area.
The business property owners group has already sent a list of ideas suggesting relocation of the granite stones “as soon as possible;” opening up West Mifflin Street to create a walkway between the Square, Overture Center and the Central Library; more street parking and lighting; signs that inform about security cameras in the area and expected behavior; seating for restaurants; more police presence; beautification; and mounting a mural on the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Verveer on Friday offered an amendment to Soglin’s proposed capital budget for 2015 that would formalize the planning effort and deliver $50,000 for changes.
Any moves, however, could be controversial because they may affect homeless people who frequent the area. The fate of public art, mature trees and future development of a joint Historical Museum and Wisconsin Veterans Museum also could be at stake.
“There’s widely divergent opinions on this,” Verveer said.
The solution, city urban planner Rebecca Cnare said, lies in both design and programming.
Soglin could not be reached for comment.
The problems had been building for several summers and became acute in the summer of 2013 but decreased after heightened police presence and the onset of winter last year, observers said.
In the spring, DMI, business and property owners, and city officials brainstormed ideas to improve the crossroads. The city stepped up cleaning, temporarily put up chalkboards to solicit public input and added sparkle lighting on trees in Philosopher’s Grove.
But through the summer, “It got worse in terms of the behaviors,” DMI president Susan Schmitz said.
The problems provoked “all-time high frustration” among business and property owners, said Nick Martin, who owns Ian’s Pizza, 100 State St. The illegal activity and atmosphere it creates makes for an unwelcoming environment for customers and people not looking for trouble, he said.
In the late summer, business and property owners pooled money to hire private security to patrol the area. The police have used various tactics and surveillance, and recently dedicated a police officer to patrol the area from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. — most bad behavior occurs during the daytime — for a number of days.
The most acute problems are not caused by the homeless, and a long-term solution involves not only policing but major changes in design, Schmitz said.
“This isn’t about the homeless. It is about criminal behavior,” she said. “It is more than police enforcement. It is about changing the way the space functions.”
Police are “very interested” in the effort to change the physical layout, Central District Lt. Dave McCaw said.
The top of State Street was rebuilt in 2004, the initial phase of a makeover of the city’s renowned thoroughfare. The redesigned space included Philosopher’s Grove, with its artistic granite seating, landscaping and a small permanent stage near the Veterans Museum.
For years, there were no big problems. But in 2010, the city closed Lisa Link Peace park, 425 State St., for improvements and people who hung out there migrated to upper State Street. A year later, the city closed the Central Library for reconstruction and a private redevelopment began on the 100 block of State Street. Those projects are now completed, and are bringing more people to the general area, but a series of storefronts on the 100 block of West Mifflin Street remain vacant in anticipation of the museum redevelopment.
The result has left the crossroads area often uninviting as a pedestrian thoroughfare, especially at night, Schmitz and others said.
“It’s now in the hands of the Planning Department,” she said. “That’s giving everyone a lot more optimism there’s going to be change.”