Rineer: 'Everyone crossed the street and just avoided this general area.'
Anthony Rineer took over Myles Teddywedgers, the iconic pasty shop located at the top of State Street, this September. One night shortly after the purchase, he was putting in a new floor when he saw a brawl going on just outside his door.
"In the course of six hours we saw three people get knocked out in front of the store," recalls Rineer. "That was a little intense."
Teddywedgers is directly adjacent to a walkway known as Philosopher's Grove, an area of odd concrete tables and chairs with a reputation for rough behavior in the heart of downtown Madison. There was a well-publicized stabbing there in April 2013. That reputation has led Mayor Paul Soglin to direct members of the Downtown Coordinating Committee to lead an initiative to redesign the space. The group will hold a community design workshop at 5:15 p.m., Nov. 20, at the Central Library.
"We're really looking forward to having this meeting," says city planner Rebecca Cnare. "We think it'll be a real opportunity for everybody to kind of put it all out there in terms of what their issues are and help us figure out a way to move forward."
Cnare is hoping that a wide cross-section of the area's stakeholders will attend the meeting, and she has invited homeless advocates as well as members of the Madison Arts Commission, the Central Business Improvement District, Downtown Madison Inc. and others. Cnare says crime and intimidating behavior are the reasons for the redesign, but she emphasizes that the presence of homeless people is not a problem.
"I've been very careful when I talk to people to make sure that they understand that there's a difference between homelessness and bad behavior, and that they are not one and the same," says Cnare. "There are some homeless that hang out down there, but they are not necessarily the ones that are doing drug dealing or intimidation."
Rineer agrees that intimidation is a problem. He remembers the disappointment of "Family Halloween," when the downtown BID invites families with children to trick-or-treat at stores around State Street and Capitol Square.
"Everyone crossed the street and just avoided this general area; no one wanted to bring their kids around," says Rineer. "That was hard."
Rineer, too, agrees that not everyone is to blame.
"A lot of [the people congregating at Philosopher's Grove] are very friendly, very outgoing; they keep to themselves. There are two who just play chess all day long, and I think that's really cool, I think that adds to the Square," he says. "But there are a couple who are very loud and very rowdy and very aggressive. And who smoke pot in front of my store all day long."
Billy Martin, known as "Security," is a regular at the stones. He thinks that the primary problems with the area are the lack of both toilets and trash cans as well as police harassment. He denies the presence of drugs, fighting or drinking.
"If it's a nice hot day out there, we want to be able to just sit down and have fun there, play cards," Martin says. "We just keep to ourselves."
The stones were first installed in 2004, when Cnare was new in the city planning department. She remembers the large concrete planter the walkway replaced.
"Originally those stones were meant to be used by people who wanted to grab something from a food cart or maybe Teddywedgers or one of the local restaurants," says Cnare. "But there's enough people sitting and occupying the space that it feels like other folks can't enjoy it."
After the Nov. 20 meeting the city planners will attempt to synthesize what they hear into a few coherent proposals to be considered by the Downtown Coordinating Committee in December. Cnare hopes for some implementation by late spring next year.
Rineer will be at the meeting, but isn't yet sure what he'll say.
"It's hard having that corner the way it is, but there's nowhere for [the people who congregate there] to go, so I don't really see a solution.... It's a nice community area right now; it just needs a little bit more structure," Rineer says. "The important thing is to just be at the meeting and hear what people have to say."
Martin also wants to go to the meeting: "I'll try to get some of my friends to come with me."