Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Juggling the homeless

Last night, the Madison City Council voted overwhelmingly to recommend that an offer of free land from the federal government, to be used as a homeless services site, be turned down in favor of buying it for other uses:
The Truman Olson Army Reserve Center, 1402 S. Park St., which is scheduled to close within the next four years, was earmarked for homeless services under federal government guidelines.

But after prioritizing a plan from Porchlight Inc. to create 38 spaces for permanent and temporary housing for the homeless, south side council members Julia Kerr and Tim Bruer sought an alternate site for the plan, citing concerns about the south side carrying more than its fair share of housing for low-income residents as well as the transitional housing detracting from economic development plans in the area.

One of the suggested alternatives was a site on the far east side on Water Utility land at 4002 Nakoosa Trail, which would involve a paper transaction between the utility and city as well as the city's purchase of the Truman Olson site.
Ald. Brenda Konkel has been writing about this issue over at her blog, and I've been scouring the available documents (which don't seem to be loading anymore?) trying to figure out exactly what the reasoning behind all of this is. It hasn't been easy, though. Heck, if the alders can't get answers to their various questions about this, how am I, a regular ol' resident, going to do it?

At first blush, it would seem that an offer of free land for the development of a homeless services site would be a pretty cherry deal. Porchlight, Inc. and Goodwill Industries both submitted proposals for just such projects, and Porchlight was given priority with their plan of building both permanent and temporary housing for the homeless. The Truman Olson site, located at 1402 S. Park St. on Madison's near south side, seems like a good place for that kind of development: it's right on a bus line, nearby to grocery stores and both residential and commercial areas. If the people being served by such a facility are to be successfully integrated back into society, then they need reasonably easy access to cheap transportation, food, and other such amenities.

However, members of the City Council, the mayor, and developers decided that the Truman Olson site would be better used for more commercial development--part of an effort to bring economic progress to the area. Apparently, a homeless shelter wasn't part of the plans drawn up by the Wingra Creek BUILD Project, an effort to "conduct market and trade area study, identify business retention and attraction strategies, and develop alternative redevelopment scenarios for the area bounded by South Park Street on the east, Fish Hatchery Road on the west, and West Wingra Drive on the south."

So it was proposed that the city just buy the Truman Olson land (for an estimated $2.2 million in initial purchase and demolition), and find a different spot for the Porchlight plan. That site? Way over on the far east side of town, on Nakoosa Trail, nestled between the loving arms of a Wal-Mart, Cub Foods, a smattering of houses, and a bunch of industrial sites like a junk yard. And also pretty well off any sort of convenient bus line, which was supposed to be one of the requirements of any site chosen for the project.

The big argument on the pro side of this is that the Truman Olson site likely won't be ready for development until 2012, whereas a different site might be ready within a year or so. I'm all for timeliness in getting Porchlight's needed services up and running, but not at the cost of a) losing accessibility for the people who'll live and work out there, and b) millions of taxpayer's dollars.

Still, I can't entirely make an informed decision about this because all the facts have yet to be presented. That's what really makes all of this seem so weird. Instead of presenting a detailed argument for the land swap, alders and everyone else have essentially been asked to sign off on a pretty hefty check without knowledge of just what they're paying for. Somehow, that smells like a really bad idea.


Dustin Christopher said...

Oh, they didn't go quietly on this one. Three and a half hours of rigamaroll preceeded the final vote, during which alders attempted to subdue each other by asking befuddled city staff the same answerless questions over and over. What pushed it through was a Sept. 14 deadline looming over the entire thing. Some alders wanted to refer it to yet another meeting, but that would have jeopardized the possibility of getting the site altogether, be it for a Porchlight facility OR economic development.

Steve Schooler from Porchlight was pretty insistent the new site meets their needs, so after being initially concerned about the land swap, I'm tentatively on board. What worries me sometimes is the city council's tendencies to argue for hours before deciding to put off making a decision for another month.

Emily said...

I really need to attend one of these meetings at some point, see how they go down. I've heard a lot about how talky they get, without actually accomplishing much. But then, that seems to be a thing with government in general. :)

I'm not really on either side with this debate--again, mostly because I don't have all the facts. That's what rubs me the wrong way about the whole thing: answers don't seem to be terribly forthcoming about what the actual plans are, and how much everything would cost.

Something to keep an eye on, certainly.

supporthousingfirst said...

People who choose to live in neighborhoods outside of the downtown area do so knowing that they're giving up certain amenities ie: a quick walk to the office, or a favorite bar/restaurant blocks away.

People who choose to live downtown do so with the knowledge that they're sacrificing to live in the heart of the city...with all that comes with it including the random traffic noise at all hours, noise from college kids spilling out of the bars at 2am or 2:30am, and a men's shelter and all that comes with it.

It is NOT fair to move the men's shelter to a neighborhood just because a group of wealthy, entitled, myopic, and selfish new condo owners and their landlords decided they didn't like living amongst the homeless downtown. This is effed-up with a capitol F.

The Lost Albatross