Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


State Street under fire

Walking down State Street will be different in 50 years.

Part of the change will be economic — stores will come, go and relocate. Even more changes will be aesthetic, thanks to street construction on the Overture and State Street Redesign Projects.

But for State Street, maybe the “who” is more important that the “what.” Madison’s pedestrian mall’s eclectic reputation is based on the mélange of students, tourists, panhandlers and vendors the street attracts.

Today, State Street is at a turning point.

Changes in the visual, tourist-attracting face of the street may have repercussions on State Street’s social makeup as well. City Council has passed laws restricting loitering and regulating panhandling within recent years. Now, the city is concentrating funds and energy toward beautification.

For example, the Overture Project’s upscale art district is already under construction. And the newly proposed State Street Design Project is well on its way to being finalized.

Both projects seek to make State Street more attractive for pedestrians — tourists and downtown residents alike. Granite walkways and more versatile bus stops and furniture are just a few of the proposed aesthetic components to State’s new facelift.

Some think this series of artistic and structural updates has the potential for repercussions wider than the newly proposed sidewalks. The city has taken criticism for funneling property-tax funding toward tourism-boosting beautification rather than toward socially conscious programs like aiding the homeless.

Even shopping critics like the Insiders Guide to Madison says because it, “attracts all kinds, including occasionally the homeless, State Street has come under particular scrutiny of late, and plans are under way to aesthetically improve the popular shopping district and eliminate any panhandling.”

One up-front goal of the redesign project, over two years in the making, is to decrease street congestion. Although Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, whose district covers part of State Street, said panhandlers have just as much right as anyone else to “hang out” on the street. He also said the design plan is receiving unjust criticism as a veiled measure to push homeless out of the tourist mall.

“Some could argue that a reason we are proposing doing away with benches and planters is to do away with loitering,” Verveer said. “But really, we are trying to increase flexibility and increase café space.”

State Street business owners say the recent increased demand for sidewalk café-style outdoor seating is the only large-scale change in State Street’s structure since it was converted into a pedestrian-only mall in the 1970s.

The State Street Design Project, formally proposed Monday at a public meeting by Philadelphia-based design firm Wallace Roberts and Todd, allows for future awning and café expansion. By adding flexible sidewalk space and eliminating permanent furniture structures like the planter blocking the State Bar and Grill, 118 State Street, its owners will offer sidewalk seating.

An employee for Transitional Housing Inc., a blanket shelter and homeless service organization in Madison, said decreasing panhandling may be on the city’s agenda, because it serves the same purpose as contemporary beautification efforts have: to boost tourism.

“[State Street businesses] are always concerned about their tourism dollars,” said Lisa Rader, THI emergency services manager. “With people here on conferences, it doesn’t look good to have panhandlers mulling around,”

Chuck Bauer, President of the Greater State Street Business Association and owner of Soap Opera, 319 State St., said the goal of the State Street Design Project is to keep the street pedestrian-friendly, not to eliminate panhandling.

“Clean, that’s our No. 1 priority, because people read that as meaning lots of other things,” Bauer said. “And safe, and State Street needs to be perceived as safe . . . and friendly.”

But, according to Madison’s Principle City Planner, who attended and participated in the two-year string of public discussions that molded the Design Project, State Street’s social dynamics were never a prominent consideration in the redesign.

“There are a number of issues that yet need to be addressed,” Bill Fruhling, city planner, said. “Homelessness and loitering just hasn’t really come up.”

Fruhling said social conflicts on State Street, like interaction between students and panhandlers, are enforcement- and management-policy issues, rather than something the design committee needed to address. He said the current design allows for flexibility in city loitering and transportation legislation.

Amidst vendors’ increased demand for more sidewalk space and city officials’ desire to increase tourism, State Street is in danger of increased social stratification.

State Street is inherently in danger of conflict. It is a conceptual bridge between the upscale Capitol Square — cigar bars, farmers market and politicians — and 40,000 UW-Madison students. Although the bulk of the city’s food pantries and homeless shelters are located near the Capitol, most panhandling occurs near the Library Mall (the 700-800 block) of State Street.

The most visible sources of social conflict on State Street are between aggressive panhandlers and passersby, according to city social workers.

Mona Wasow, UW clinical professor of social work, said the reason most panhandling in the city of Madison occurs on the 500 through 800 blocks of State Street is that university students are more socially accepting and generous than the general population.

“UW students tend to be more tolerant of deviant behavior than your average citizen,” Wasow said.

“Deviant behavior” by panhandlers is not overly common, nor does it go unpunished. The Madison Police Department has more officers on the State Street beat than any other area of the city at any given time of day, any day of the week. Area shelters also punish violent or obscene behavior by banning people from services for days, weeks or months, if appropriate.

Verveer said when panhandlers get aggressive, however rare instances are, an unsafe and unprofessional image is perpetuated for State Street.

“There are always some street folks that are very out of line with some of their behaviors,” he said. “Some pedestrians do get verbal abuse from some of the characters.

“Calling names, saying sexist things can be intimidating and scary.”

The incoming president of the State Street Business Association, Sandy Torkindson, co-owner of Room of One’s Own bookstore, said panhandling is a universal part of any urban environment and that the handful of panhandlers common to State Street is not a concern that needs to be at the forefront of policy debate.

“The people on State Street mix very well — there are always issues near campus about aggressive panhandlers, but the police pretty much need to leave it up to citizens to report aggressive behavior,” Torkindson said. “There is not a problem with [panhandlers] just being there.”

But, it is undisputable that students are the most likely portion of the population to give up their pocket change, say sociologists and social workers.

Rader, who works directly with low-income patrons of the shelter and walk-in pantry at Grace Episcopal Church, said Madison has an extensive network of organizations and services that provide homeless people with free meals, employment and housing services and nighttime shelter. She said the State Street panhandlers that businesses and city workers are critical of usually do not use the free services; rather, they panhandle to feed alcohol and drug addictions.

“I know one man personally that doesn’t even visit the shelter anymore, because he says he can earn enough money — $50 to $100 a day — panhandling near campus to feed his heroin addiction, and he probably has enough left over to buy food and probably a hotel room at night, too,” Rader said.

Moreover, making the assumption that social services like shelters perpetuate panhandling is wrong, said Executive Director of THI, Steve Schooler. He said only about 25 percent of the people who use THI’s shelter service ever panhandle. Over 60 percent of the people Madison’s social services encounter are employed but do not have affordable housing or meals.

“I would never give money to a panhandler,” Schooler said. “Most people think that panhandling and shelters are related, but that is completely false.”

Verveer said this assumption is dangerous but common to the State Street Business Association, which has run anti-panhandling donation campaigns. He said there are several broad social issues the city needs to devote more funding to, such as outreach to drug and alcohol addicts and low-income housing.

“Merchants complain that the services are the root of all evil, of keeping these people around, but I think these services are necessary,” he said.

Verveer and District 8 Ald. Todd Jarrell proposed an amendment to the city’s budget to add a part-time State Street outreach position, filled by one of the local nonprofit organizations. The $20,000 amendment narrowly passed Tuesday night. If the budget is finalized as it stands, this will be the third time in six years Madison has provided such a service to the city’s homeless.

Bauer said, regardless of the social tension that may be growing between business owners, students and the area homeless, the State Street Business Association is maintaining its support for downtown beautification.

“The State Street is the heart and soul of the entire city, and we want to make it as nice as it can be — especially with the new Monona Terrace and Overture Project bringing more and more people from all over the globe to Madison,” Bauer said.

Even the design company proposing wider sidewalks and a spacious concrete park to be built in 2003 recognizes that dissent has come directly from people of lower income levels. Ignacio Bunster-Ossa said his final design hopes to put a cap on concerns and embrace many of the community’s broad artistic ideas while maintaining a timeless design.

“We want to make sure that people are calm and everyone’s pointing in the same direction,” he said.

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