In a meeting that was at times tense and antagonistic, people argued about the motives behind the redevelopment of Lisa Link Peace Park and what the city should be doing to help the homeless.
Ald. Mike Verveer called the meeting at the Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel across Gilman Street from Peace Park, to discuss the $900,000 renovation plans, which include a visitor center, a water spout, a peace pole, stage and landscaping.
Homeless advocates have feared the renovation is really being done to drive away the homeless and others who hang out there. Those fears turned to anger last week, when news that an ATM - which would prohibit panhandling - is now part of the project.
Verveer, whose district includes Peace Park, opened the meeting by detailing the nearly decade-long effort to renovate the park. He said there's a shortage of green space downtown and that Peace Park has always been underutilized because some people feel it's a dangerous place. "I'm not saying that's true," Verveer added. "But sadly that's the perception that a lot of people have."
The meeting seethed with tension over how the homeless are treated in Madison as well as the fears some people have when near the park.
At one point during the meeting, Verveer read an email he'd received from one of his constituents, who wrote she often felt threatened near the park: "'It is almost constantly taken over by non-residents,' her word, not mine," Verveer added, before continuing the note: "'Within the last 24 hours I witnessed two screaming matches, one of which came to blows.'"
Others disagreed the park was all that scary. One woman, who said she was a senior at UW, said "I've never been scared walking by the park. If anything, it's walking by the bars at night that's scary. We're dumping $1 million into this park. What are we doing for the homeless?"
The group of about 50 was divided over plans for the police department to have a small work station in the visitor's center.
Dolores Grengg, who was friends with the late Lisa Link and helped get the park named after her (and was sitting next to Lisa's son, Tom Link), objected, saying: "We know that Lisa would see it as a peace park, not a police park."
"I'm sorry to hear that you feel that way," responded Capt. Mary Schauf who commands the central district. Schauf said the police would use the workstation as place to make calls, do paper work and access their computers.
Hawk Schenkel, owner of Hawk's Bar and Grill across State Street from the Park, said there's nothing controversial about the plans. "I don't feel unsafe walking through Peace Park but the reality is a lot of people do. And perception is reality. The idea that there's not a problem there is a myth," he said. "I don't have a problem with passive panhandlers. But the reality is a lot of them are not passive."
Max Holmes, an activist with Operation Welcome Home, interrupted several speakers to argue their points. He said that a homeless person sleeping in the park is treated a lot differently than a college student sunbathing. "You say there are a lot of problems in the park. There are a lot of problems in the downtown area."
Kristen Petroshius, another activist with Operation Welcome Home, said that perceptions of issues depend on who you are and the experiences you've had: "Low income people don't have the same experience with police."
She said she worried the effort to renovate Peace Park is similar to the efforts to "clean up" Brittingham Park a few years ago. It was once a popular hangout for the homeless, but they were chased away and now it's a largely unused park, she said.
"I'm not saying people shouldn't be held accountable for their actions," she said. "But how do we deal with it? I haven't seen anyone dealing with the root problem."
She said the plans for the park look good, but asked the city officials to remove the ATM from the project.
The Plan Commission will review the park plans next month, before they go to the Common Council.