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Madison rebuilds to reclaim neighborhood

Paul Snyder

Madison wants a senior housing project to change the culture in a neighborhood long associated with crime and poverty.

“A lot of people want to see what happens if this goes forward,” said Alderman Tim Bruer. “I’ve had 15 to 20 inquiries in the past year from developers, bankers and senior groups. To say there’s a lot of interest here would be an understatement.”

There’s also interest from the Madison Police Department and city planners, who want to see if knocking down seven apartment buildings on one block in the Burr Oaks neighborhood and replacing them with senior-living and care units can further the city’s efforts to revitalize its south side.

“Sometimes you need a bold initiative in a particular area,” said Capt. Joe Balles of the Madison Police Department’s south district. “But this would still be step one in a long process.”

The apartments cited for demolition contain several vacancies, Bruer said, and in the past several years fostered a lot of criminal activity, predominantly related to drug dealing and prostitution.

Although problems have subsided somewhat, Burr Oaks resident Ruth Ann Baughs said, the neighborhood is not at peace.

“Police calls are down from where they were a few years ago,” she said. “But there were still about 200 last year. We’re plugging forward. It gets to a point where you can’t go down any further than we were.”

The city plans to spend roughly $3 million acquiring the land and demolishing the buildings, and Bruer said he wants a request for proposals issued later this year and construction under way in 2010.

The reason to pursue senior housing, he said, is market response. While the city’s east and west sides offer assisted-living centers and clinics, the south side has few such resources for seniors.

Developers hungry for work likely will not be deterred by the area’s reputation, said Carole Schaeffer, executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison Inc., especially when the city is willing to kick-start the project.

“If the city is purchasing land for the project and committing to do something, it gives developers a lot of confidence,” she said. “Madison isn’t like other cities when it comes to crime. For a while you hear about this neighborhood, then you hear about that neighborhood. But it’s not like the city’s asking someone to go into (Chicago housing project) Cabrini-Green.”

Although problems with crack cocaine and prostitution still permeate the neighborhood, Balles said, no neighborhood in Madison can be viewed as a trouble spot anymore. If anything, he said, Madison is becoming increasingly like other metropolitan areas when it comes to crime.

“The whole crime issue has really spread out,” he said. “You look at the homicides that happened in the last year, and did they all happen in Allied Drive? No. Not one of them did. And a few years ago, that was the area everyone worried about.

“It’s not about one main neighborhood. I hate to say it, of course, but the next homicide could be next door to you.”

Balles said shifting the focus of the block from aging apartment buildings to senior living would not solve crime on the city’s south side, but he said it would not be dangerous for incoming senior citizens.

“It brings more diversity to the area,” he said. “It would be a safe place (for seniors). It’s when you have a lot of the same kind of development creating a collection of problems that you start to see trouble occur.”

The city’s problems with the apartments extend beyond the one block slated for change, Bruer said, but Madison is doing what it can. Much of the land was recently or has yet to be annexed from the town of Madison, he said, and the city could do little until it acquired the land.

Baughs said the Burr Oaks Neighborhood Association has listened for three years to plans to remove the apartments and wants something to happen soon.

“It’s been a long tow,” she said. “There’s a core group of us very concerned with cleaning this area up.”

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