Despite concerns about new capital spending, Madison is considering a $17 million, 40,000-square-foot facility at Reindahl Park that would combine a new library and other city services in a new way for underserved neighborhoods on the Far East Side.
The proposed “Reindahl Imagination Center” would include a library, community center and a presence for other agencies, including Parks and Public Health, at the 91-acre park near the intersection of East Washington Avenue and Portage Road.
The much-used park already offers soccer, softball and cricket fields, basketball and tennis courts, a splash park, community gardens, shelter and parking.
Mayor Paul Soglin, who has been wary of adding big projects to the capital budget due to rising debt costs, for months has helped develop a plan for the Imagination Center with Ald. Samba Baldeh, 17th District, library director Greg Mickells and other agency managers.
Baldeh has long been pushing for more services for the area.
“The East Side is home to over 96,000 residents, skews younger, more diverse and poorer than the city as a whole,” he said. “There are no community centers/public spaces or access to city services in the whole District 17. Here is an opportunity for city agencies to work together and provide unique and needed services to the community.”
Soglin declined to say whether he’ll propose to fund the library’s request for an initial $2 million for planning in the 2018 budget, with $15 million more over three years in the Capital Improvement Plan, but he voiced a strong commitment to the project.
“It’s obviously something I really believe in,” he said. “I’m not going to pre-release portions of the budget, but development of the proposal was enthusiastically managed by me personally with extensive discussions with Ald. Baldeh.”
Baldeh said: “I think we should get this going ASAP. This is an investment with a very high return. I believe this is one of the long-term solutions to some of the serious issues the city is faced with.”
The mayor on Sept. 5 will propose a capital budget for 2018. The City Council will make final decisions on capital and operating budgets in November.
The Imagination Center would be a place for the community to gather and learn and would be a safe place for youth with limited options, officials said.
It would provide library access to Sandburg Elementary School, as well as educational opportunities, tools and expertise to empower residents, and a cultural platform for a growing international community and communities of color in the area, they said. Sandburg is the lone Madison school that doesn’t have a library within a five-minute drive.
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The neighborhoods have many challenges, Soglin said. Major highways intersect the area. Commercial and retail development in the area was largely developed as regional, not neighborhood shopping. Relatively cheap hotels are a problem for the city in regard to drug use and human trafficking.
“It’s an area under stress,” the mayor said. “Ald. Baldeh and I have been meeting on this for some time. We’ve been trying to figure out, one, where to start, and two, how to make a public investment and maximize the benefits for the greatest number of people.”
The involvement of multiple agencies in such a facility “is kind of new territory for the city,” Mickells said, adding that the project can have a huge positive impact on surrounding neighborhoods.
“We’re kind of recognizing it doesn’t make much sense to do stand-alone library branches and stand-alone community centers,” city community development director Jim O’Keefe said.
Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp added, “We’re definitely looking forward to exploring this with the community. There’s no doubt the northeast side could use some reinvestment.”
Only a concept
In April, Soglin told city managers to prioritize planned projects, seek to delay projects to 2021 or later and eliminate low-priority projects, and that no new projects — except community-based ones such as libraries or neighborhood centers — should be added to the 2018 capital budget or five-year Capital Improvement Plan.
This summer — with a green light from Soglin — Mickells submitted a budget request for the Imagination Center that includes $2 million in planning for 2018 and a total of $15 million more in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The budget includes $5 million in private funds in the final year.
The center would cost $1 million annually for operations, mainly staffing costs, the request says.
For now, the center is only a concept, with funds to be budgeted, and neighborhood outreach, planning and design needed before a project takes shape. A 40,000-square-foot facility would be the library system’s second-largest behind the three-story, 120,000-square-foot Central Library. Now, the next largest is the 20,000-square-foot Sequoya branch at 4340 Tokay Blvd.
“It’s important for us to listen to the community, to hear about their needs and what they’re envisioning,” Mickells said.
To shape the concept, city officials are drawing on innovations at the renovated Central Library, such as the Bubbler pop-up workshops that introduce participants to local experts who share talents and resources; experiences at the Meadowridge Library and adjacent community center on the Southwest Side; and efforts at place-making.
The Meadowridge experience “opened our eyes to the potential of bringing different activity centers together,” O’Keefe said. “I think the possibilities are endless.”