It was the first public meeting on the proposed redevelopment of the Villager Mall in more than two years. About 80 people turned out to learn what changes the city's Community Development Authority had made to plans for the aging Park Street mall, which it had bought in 2005.
But first, the residents had to listen to Ald. Tim Bruer. The south-side alder began last month's town hall meeting with a 19-minute near monologue on the history of the city, the neighborhood and the mall itself.
In the audience, south-side resident Julie Yearling was fuming. She wanted to hear about the Villager, not Bruer's ruminations. "It was an obstructionist tactic," she complains.
Bruer eventually introduced Mark Olinger, the city's planning director. Olinger explained that the Villager plan included a new 10,000-square-foot library, a health center and a remodeled atrium.
As soon as Olinger ended his presentation, Bruer took over again. He announced that since he had already spoken to most of the people in the room and knew what they were concerned about, he would be asking the questions. Then he turned to Olinger and, pretending to be a resident, said, "Mr. Olinger, how come there's no restaurant?"
Several people in the audience raised their hands, but Bruer ignored them.
"Mr. Olinger," he continued, "will things actually get done after 30 years of waiting?"
Olinger smiled and obligingly answered. The city hoped to break ground on phase one, including the new library, sometime this year. And a restaurant was still possible, at a later date. Bruer eventually began calling on people in the audience, many of whom had stubbornly kept their hands raised, though he decided to call first on neighborhood residents, before letting others ask questions.
Bonnie Schmidt, who has lived near Park Street for nearly 20 years, later sent Bruer an email complaining about his "presumed ownership" of a public meeting.
"I did kind of reach the boiling point with a number of things," says Schmidt in an interview. "He's a bully in the biggest sense. And it's got to stop."
The reaction of Schmidt and others is part of a larger concern - that Bruer and the city are excluding them from the Villager's redevelopment. They note that Bruer has bragged about having "closed-door" meetings with consultants and staff about the project.
"That to me is what is so sad about this," says Yearling. "They've totally removed us from the equation about what is going on in our own neighborhood."
In 2005, the city set up an oversight committee to develop a concept plan for the Villager. The committee met five times, before presenting a plan late that year. Then the committee disbanded, and there were no more public meetings.
Last fall, Yearling attended a CDA meeting, to ask what was happening. When she heard there were changes to the Villager plan - changes made without consulting the neighborhood - she pushed the Burr Oaks Neighborhood Association to hold the March 24 town-hall meeting.
"I'm not just disappointed because there's no longer a restaurant or a grocery store," she says. "It's mostly about how they've written us off."
Bruer says that of all the projects he's worked on since being elected in 1984, "this has been the most complicated and the most challenging." So many people have opinions about the Villager that "I'm walking on coals no matter where I go with this."
There was a two-year delay, he explains, because the city was negotiating with the town of Madison to acquire some adjacent parcels for the redevelopment. And he insists he's kept the neighborhood association's leadership informed. "But they really wanted to come together when the foundation for the Villager had solidified to the extent that they had something serious to respond to," he says.
Bruer also says Yearling and other critics are "on the fringe" of the neighborhood association, not active members. "Most of these same players have made it their business to insert themselves into the stakeholder meetings on the Villager."
Ruth Ann Bauhs, the neighborhood association's treasurer, praises Bruer's work on the Villager. His critics, she says, are "a splinter group" that "almost tore down the most active neighborhood association in the city. It's gotten that bad."
The city is anticipating more than $60 million in new development along the South Park Street corridor. And residents are worried they might not get a say in how their neighborhood changes.
Last fall, Yearling attended a CDA meeting she thought would be about the Villager. Instead, she was surprised to hear a presentation by a Minnesota company that wanted to build a 100-unit facility near the new Cypress Way spray park - on a city-owned lot that had been intended for parkland.
So Yearling got a handful of residents to attend the CDA's next meeting, hoping to testify about the project. Kate Moran went because she was concerned about building a high-density apartment building on land that was supposed to be for a park.
"The neighborhood plan calls for less density and more owner-occupied housing there," says Moran. "We would like it to be greenspace."
But she says Bruer, a member of the CDA, treated the residents rudely when they tried to testify. He purportedly told the CDA the group was not part of the neighborhood association and promised to get the neighborhood's true leadership to support the project.
"I could not believe he would announce to a public body that I was a troublemaker who no one liked," says Moran. "It's horrible to be browbeaten by your public official. Tim Bruer is mean."
Yearling says Bruer was saying that because they weren't officers in the neighborhood association, "therefore, I guess, we shouldn't be listened to."
Bruer says the proposal is a work in progress: "It's not even close to being soup yet. For anything to go forward, we'd [have] a number of public meetings."
He adds that he tries "to keep stakeholders in the loop, but that's balanced against people interpreting concepts as final projects."
But Moran says that since moving to his district two years ago, "Most of what I've seen going on in my neighborhood from that alder are deals made behind closed doors. He wants to control the dialogue."