After six years, Madison is moving to sell the first of 45 vacant building lots it acquired to revive a failed residential development in an isolated, lower-income neighborhood with a lot of children on the Southeast Side.
The city has been struggling to boost the Owl Creek neighborhood since it was created near a wetlands area behind industrial buildings Southeast of the Beltline and Highway 51 in the mid-2000s.
The Owl Creek subdivision, 94 lots including five lots of open space, stalled in the Great Recession, with less than half of the development completed at the 39-acre site. In 2014, the city stepped in to buy 51 remaining lots for $510,000, used six of them to develop a neighborhood park, and is only now moving to sell 16 of the remaining lots in a first phase to complete the housing project.
“When the Great Recession hit, the subdivision wasn’t even half built and the bank took the unbuilt properties back from the developer,” said Matt Wachter, city planning, community and economic development director. “The streets were built, but it lacked the amenities and critical mass of housing to be successful. The city saw the opportunity to step in and add some of the missing amenities and support the existing residents with an eye towards building out the larger subdivision.”
The city has periodically bought land to assure quality development, and even participated in projects, but officials can’t recall a time when the city stepped in to acquire dozens of vacant lots to complete a residential subdivision.
Some residents, however, are concerned about gentrification and challenges in competing for new homes, as well as a loss of open space.
“I think the best used would be to continue with the community garden, keeping the green space, installing programs for the kids in the neighborhood like a summer camp,” resident and neighborhood activist Laura Milbrath said. “I have suggested the idea of a splash pad on more than one occasion and the idea has not been received very well, but during the summer kids have nowhere to go.”
Investment and need
Since the city’s purchase, it has developed a 3.9-acre park with a shelter, playground, basketball court, drinking fountain, benches and path; used a Neighborhood Resource Team to engage residents who lack a formal neighborhood association or neighborhood center; and added Metro Transit service to provide better access to after-school activities and to help residents get to jobs.
The Dane County Bookmobile now serves the area. With the help of the city, children helped paint a large mural of an owl on a cul de sac. The community garden was established last summer.
But the neighborhood, while relatively new, lacks amenities such as a school, grocery or pharmacy within walking distance.
“We live on the periphery of everything,” Milbrath said. “Some of the challenges are emergency response times and public transportation. There is very little within walking distance. Some of the older kids have bicycles, but theft is very prevalent.”
“The biggest issue with Owl Creek is isolation,” city neighborhood resource coordinator Tariq Saqqaf said.
“From a policing perspective, the Owl Creek neighborhood is stable,” Madison police spokesperson Tyler Grigg said. “Over the summer police responded to a few disturbances, and recently the area appears to be steady. As far as challenges, the neighborhood is a bit isolated without any schools close by. The area could benefit by having more community resources in closer proximity.”
For now, the city intends to complete the construction of the subdivision and to provide a wider variety of housing options to serve the people already in the neighborhood as well as the broader Southeast Side, Wachter said.
The city, he said, sought to identify homebuilders who can deliver single-family, owner-occupied houses that balance quality, energy efficiency, and affordability that fit into the neighborhood. There is also a preference for homebuilders who provide subcontracting opportunities for emerging and minority- or women-owned businesses or job training, he said.
Ald. Michael Tierney, 16th District, has offered resolutions to sell eight lots to Tri-State Custom Construction for $239,680, and eight lots to Gold Star Real Estate for $270,690. The resolutions will be considered by committees with the City Council making a final decision.
“We enjoy providing entry-level new construction options to the public, so we are excited for this opportunity,” Gold Star owner Amy Lewison said. “These lots will have single-family homes for owner occupancy built upon them. We will be building mostly single-story, ranch-style homes with full basements that can be finished for more living space initially or later on, as the new homeowner desires.
“Our owner-occupied new homes will add value, stability and beauty to the neighborhood,” she said. “The floor plans are formulated for today’s living needs, and we hope people will find our homes to be quality-built, livable and affordable.”
Tierney could not be reached.
A long wait
The city approved the original development by brothers Doug and Marc Nelson for 69 single-family homes, 15 duplexes and four four-unit apartment buildings in the mid-2000s, but the project got caught in the Great Recession and was never completed. Just 38 of the lots were developed.
Eventually, Dane County moved to foreclose on the undeveloped property for back taxes, and it was put up for sale by the Sheriff’s Department. The land was purchased by Anchor Bank, which negotiated a letter of intent to sell to the city.
No one thought it would take this long restart construction, Wachter said.
“In the first couple of years, the market for single-family owner occupied homes was still in flux from the Great Recession,” he said. “As the market recovered, the city turned its focus to the question of how to complete the buildout of the single-family component of the neighborhood. Staff laid out a variety of options in a report and equity analysis in late 2017. Due to turnover and limited staff capacity in the city’s Office of Real Estate Services, we were unable to move forward with the (request for developer proposals) until 2020.
“This went slower than any of us wanted or thought it would,” he said.
A LOOK AT VILAS PARK