Kloppenburg calls Sheboygan community garden 'a social-diversity hotspot.'
In the face of mounting evidence of Madison's racial disparities, various efforts are under way to bring together people who might not otherwise cross paths. These labors are not lost on people who tend plots at Sheboygan Avenue Community Garden, where they say they've developed diverse connections in a completely organic way.
"It's a social-diversity hotspot," says Jack Kloppenburg, who has been gardening there since 1988 and is a professor of community and environmental sociology at UW-Madison. "It is the place that I have learned the most about different people who share the place of Madison with me. We do it without it being a forced or conscious effort. We do it because we're all gardeners."
More than 100 households have plots at the garden, which is located on state-owned property just to the west of the Department of Transportation building at Hill Farms. According to Cindy Statz, garden coordinator, members come from more than 10 ethnic groups; 45% live in apartments, 40% are low-income, and 30% are over 55.
Founded in 1981, the garden is, of course, more than a social club. Gardeners harvest fruits and vegetables there, some of which end up as donations to area food pantries.
But the garden is now threatened by the proposed $196 million redevelopment of the Hill Farms site. According to the Department of Administration's request for proposals (RFP), the state is seeking a developer to, among other things, design and build a turn-key new office building, put in additional parking and purchase the "remaining underutilized land" for private development.
The property spans 21 acres, and the garden occupies less than an acre of that. Gardeners worry the garden won't be included in the final plans for the site, but they can't get any information from the DOA.
Neither can the people who manage the Westside Community Market, which hosts Saturday farmers' markets at the Hill Farms site.
Founded in 2005, the market has grown to be the "second-biggest farmers' market in the county," says Cassie Noltnerwyss, president of the market board and a vendor herself.
She says the market provides an important service to the community and brings in significant income to many of the vendors there.
"We're looking to protect these two things," she says.
Noltnerwyss says the market helps build community by offering cooking demonstrations, author appearances and activities for kids. She notes that her own farm, Crossroads Community Farm, counts on up to 30% of its annual income from market sales.
She and other market officials have called various administrators at the DOA about the market, but have had no luck getting anyone on the phone.
"We can't get anyone to talk to us about it," she says. "We're kind of in a holding pattern and just hope we won't get completely planned out of whatever the project is."
They are 'stonewalling me'
According to the Department of Administration's RFP, the agency was slated to identify a developer and issue a letter of intent by Dec. 31. But nothing has yet been made public, and agency spokesman Cullen Werwie did not return multiple phone calls and emails from Isthmus seeking information on the status of the project.
Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), who has served on the state Building Commission on and off for the last 50 years, says he, too, is in the dark.
"I can't get any answers," says Risser, who whose last day on the panel was Monday due to committee reassignments made by Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse). "They are stonewalling me completely."
Risser notes that the Building Commission would normally be kept apprised of projects of this magnitude and meet every month. But the committee, chaired by Gov. Scott Walker, has been on a hiatus, Risser adds.
"It's very unusual that the Building Commission hasn't met for four months and that the whole process is taking place without legislative review at all."
On Nov. 18, the DOA released the names of four developers being closely considered for the project. They are Middleton-based T. Wall Enterprises; McCaffery Interests, based in Chicago; Minneapolis-based Mortenson; and C.D. Smith of Fond du Lac. In October, Terrence Wall, the president and CEO of T. Wall Enterprises, donated $9,975 to Scott Walker's campaign, according to records from the state's Government Accountability Board.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that a selection committee would interview the developers the week of Dec. 15.
The $196 million price tag for the project prompted a Dec. 18 letter of complaint from three Republican lawmakers to DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch.
Reps. Joe Sanfelippo, Dave Craig and Rob Hutton noted the Department of Transportation was facing a projected "funding shortfall" that had already prompted Secretary Mark Gottlieb to request an additional $750 million for his agency. "In light of these facts, we question the wisdom of proceeding with this Doyle-era idea in committing $200 million of scarce resources into an office building that will be of little benefit to the citizens who will be paying for it."
The lawmakers asked whether a new building was needed at all and what the annual operating costs would be. They concluded by urging Huebsch to "delay signing a contract for construction until a thorough examination of DOT's financial condition is completed and it is determined that proceeding down this path is the best course to follow."
In a Dec. 8 letter, Statz asked Huebsch and other DOA administrators to meet to discuss "parceling of the garden site" from the scope of the RFP. Statz says she did not receive a response from Huebsch; Summer Strand, administrator of the Division of Facilities Development; or Cindy Torstveit, administrator of the Division of Facilities Management.
Statz noted that when the state first looked to redevelop the site, under former Gov. Jim Doyle, the 2008 redevelopment plan included maintaining the existing garden or relocating it to a suitable nearby location.
Matt Tucker, zoning administrator for the city of Madison, says he has not yet had any conversations with the state about the gardens at Hill Farms. But once a developer is chosen and a plan presented, the proposal would likely need approvals from various city committees, including zoning and urban design, says Tucker.
He says the city is "really excited" about the "great opportunities" the redevelopment offers. Tucker notes that the site will eventually host more than an office building and that "developers will need to be working with the city for the balance of the site." He says it's an important site for the gardens, farmers' market and neighborhood.
Mark Woulf, who coordinates alcohol and food issues for the city, says Mayor Paul Soglin's office is very much aware of the potential impact of the Hill Farms redevelopment. "We are actively monitoring it," he says.
"We're committed to working with whatever developer the DOA selects," he says, adding, "assuming it makes that information public at some point."