Small. Inexpensive. Fast.
A private-public coalition is using that approach to create a more dynamic, interactive and welcoming space around the crossroads of Capitol Square and State Street, an area that in recent years has also attracted chronic alcoholics and some who argue, fight, deal and use drugs, and use doorways and alleys as toilets.
The efforts focus on the shaded “Philosopher’s Grove” area next to the Wisconsin Historical Museum, an amphitheater area near the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, and the 100 block of West Mifflin Street that connects the area with the new Central Library and Overture Center.
Ideas include better cleaning and lighting, placing a secured, weatherproof video screen that will display photos of city life submitted by citizens, chalkboards for public comment, promoting the use of public performance spaces, and art in windows of vacant buildings on the 100 block of West Mifflin.
The intent is to make the area as inviting as refurbished Lisa Link Peace Park, 425 State St., and the bustling 700 and 800 blocks of State Street that connect to UW-Madison’s Library Mall.
“We know how important these public spaces are to healthy downtowns,” said Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc. “This is something that needs to be done.”
Concern about the area became acute last summer, especially when people suspected of being involved in gangs and the drug trade began to show up.
The city increased police presence and enforcement and added security cameras, and the most troubling problems ebbed during the winter. The area still attracts the homeless and some who drink too much, but so far this spring, the biggest troublemakers haven’t returned.
“I believe things have improved,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who represents the core Downtown. “There haven’t been any severe incidents.”
Also helping are the reopening last fall of the renovated Central Library, 201 W. Mifflin St., and the coming completion of the $11.6 million Block 100 project that will include a restaurant at the corner of West Mifflin and North Fairchild streets.
Host of new ideas
Now, the city, DMI, the nonprofit group 100state, the museums, property owners and businesses and others are forwarding more ways to make the area appealing and safe for a broad spectrum of people.
The coalition isn’t seeking to displace the homeless. “The only people I want to get rid of are those who can’t exercise socially acceptable behavior,” Verveer said.
100state hopes to soon place a video screen at Philosopher’s Grove that will stream photos from its BeMadison initiative, which asks people to submit photographs of city life that are shared on a website, executive directors Andrew Conley and Michael Fenchel said.
More than 100 people already have submitted more than 1,000 photographs for the initiative’s website. 100state now hopes to set a screen atop a kiosk-style structure similar to the Central Business Improvement District's visitor information booth in Philosopher’s Grove. The new booth would also have devices so people could take and share photos at the location.
“We want to make it an area (where) all Madisonians come together to celebrate Madison,” Fenchel said, adding that the nonprofit would like to have equipment installed by June 20 so it can be used to share images during the second annual citywide Make Music Madison event the next day.
The booth also may have apps that could connect people — including the homeless — who frequent the area with odd jobs such as mowing a lawn or shoveling snow, Fenchel said.
Developer, city on board
Hovde Properties, which owns a series of vacant storefronts on the south side of the 100 block of West Mifflin Street, recently power-washed the buildings, intends modest facade improvements and is in conversations with the city and Overture Center on ways to present backlit art and messages in the store windows, Hovde project manager Vic Villacrez said.
The company doesn’t want to bring in long-term tenants or make major investments in the vacant properties because it expects the site to be part of a major redevelopment that would include new state history and veterans museums, Villacrez said.
To make the area more inviting, the city intends to soon begin more intensive sidewalk cleaning in the area, is exploring the feasibility of adding “twinkle lighting” to trees in Philosophers Grove, and may place 4-by-8-foot chalkboards in the area so people can offer ideas on how to best use the space, city urban design planner Rebecca Cnare said.
The city is also promoting use of the ampitheater, which can be reserved for free the same day for non-amplified events or rented for $15 plus electricity for bigger performances.
“All of these things are at the heart of placemaking,” Cnare said. “It should be from the ground up.”
[This story has been updated to correct the owner/operator of the information booth in Philosopher's Grove.]