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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Fair
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Fear and excitement greet Occupy Madison's plans for tiny house village in Emerson East neighborhood
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The concept is geared toward homeless people, but some Occupy members with homes are interested in living there as well.
Credit:Bruce Wallbaum

Occupy Madison has a dream for a cooperative, eco village that would help the homeless get back on their feet. On Wednesday night, they unveiled that vision to the east side neighborhood where they want to create it.

But some residents at the meeting at James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Church on East Johnson Street thought the idea sounds like a nightmare. Opinion appeared evenly divided, with about half of the crowd of 150 or more people against it. For Occupy Madison, the biggest disappointment was the opposition from the Madison Police Department.

In late December, Occupy Madison made an offer on property at 2046-2050 E. Johnson St., which currently houses an auto body shop. The group -- which is offering $110,000 for the property -- has until about May to get the necessary city approvals to close on it.

The group is currently building "tiny houses" in a rented workshop off Stoughton and Cottage Grove roads. It wants to move this workshop into the auto body shop on Johnson. As homes are finished, up to 11 would be parked on the property around the shop. The homes -- each 14-by-7 feet -- would house Occupy members who have invested in the group through work projects. The concept is geared toward homeless people, but some Occupy members with homes are interested in living there as well. There are also plans for gardens, chickens and honey bees at the site. Each tiny house also has a compostable toilet. And it would run a store, selling products made in the workshop.

The property is currently zoned neighborhood mixed use, which allows homes and businesses that are geared toward neighborhood services, said Matt Tucker, the city's zoning administrator. The current zoning does not allow the tiny houses, which for zoning purposes are considered campers, or the workshop, a type of use that is supposed to be in more industrial zones.

So for the project to happen, the city will have to either change the zoning or approve a "planned unit development" (PUD) on the site. PUDs allow city officials to craft rules and requirements that are specific to a development -- and it involves a rigorous approval process.

Capt. Jay Lengfeld, captain of the MPD North District, where the project is located, told the audience the police department is opposed to it. He said it's too close to nearby schools and Demetral Park, which has issues with drug dealing and violence.

"Occupy has been in three locations and every one increased calls for services, had problems and were asked to move," Lengfeld told the meeting. "That's important for people to know."

Brenda Konkel, an Occupy member and former alder, said after the meeting that Lengfeld's comments stunned her. "I was extremely disappointed with the police department," she said. "I called them and asked to sit down with them and they completely blew me off. I've never had that experience with any of the police captains."

Many neighbors expressed alarm over the number of people who could be living there, as well as who would be living there. Some said they felt the project was moving too fast. There was worry about where the compostable toilets would be dumped. One man worried feces would run down the street, which frequently floods during heavy rain.

One woman who lives nearby said she feared for the safety of her 9-year-old stepson and wondered who would be living there. "Will they have background checks? Will they have alcohol and drug problems?"

The affect the development would have on property values was also a concern. "The way this project has been described, it's a trailer park," said one man. "So you're kidding yourself if you think it's not going to affect property values."

Some said they might be able to support the project, but were worried too many people would be living there. "We don't get to choose our neighbors, but we usually get a couple at a time, not 20," said one woman. "We're feeling defensive because this has come as a surprise. There's too much density in the project, too much going on."

Konkel responded to many of the questions. She noted that at similar communities the group visited in the Pacific Northwest, the Occupy residents clean up and do chores around their neighborhoods. She said that the sewage from compostable toilets would be disposed off of site, not on the grounds.

"It'd difficult to listen to things people are saying about some of my friends," Konkel told the crowd. "We work with them, we have faith in them. The system wasn't working for them and now they're trying to do something outside the system to better their lives."

She added that people living at the site will have more at stake -- if they don't follow the group's rules, the can be kicked out and find themselves homeless again.

Bruce Wallbaum, another Occupy member, noted after the meeting that "all of the people who are going to be living there were in the audience. [The neighborhood] didn't seem to be afraid to be here with them in the same room."

A contingent of neighbors also expressed support and urged others to show compassion for those in tough circumstances trying something new.

Molly Stentz said she recently bought a house on Johnson Street, near the proposed site. She told the group she came to the meeting in part to meet some of her new neighbors.

"I was amazed to hear about this project -- I thought, this is the neighborhood I want to live in. I want to live in a neighborhood that's trying to solve problems," she said. But after hearing some of her new neighbors' comments, she grew alarmed. "I was a little disheartened to hear all the negative comments," she said. "I wonder, is everyone thinking that about me, that I'm an alcoholic or a drug addict?"

Another man who lives in the neighborhood said, "To suggest there is going to be problems before there are problems is doing a disservice to the neighborhood. We live in a neighborhood that is embracing."

"If anybody thinks there's not homeless people living in or passing through our neighborhood now, they're fooling themselves," the man added. "This is a chance for us to help people get a new start on life."

Konkel said that she felt all of the neighbors' concerns could be addressed through the planned unit development process. The city can put conditions on the property. If they aren't met, the city can revoke permission to do certain things or reduce the density of people living there.

"We're willing to talk about these things because we know that this is different," she told the group. "If we're not living up to what we promised, you can go to the Plan Commission."

At the end of the meeting, Ald. Larry Palm, who represents the area, asked for a show of hands of people who supported 11 tiny houses on the site, and only a few raised their hands. But many more neighbors raised their hands to support fewer tiny houses on the site. About half raised their hands opposing any tiny homes on the property.

Keith Valiquette, an Occupy member who has struggled with homelessness in recent years, is next in line to get a tiny house (Occupy has built two so far) and hopes to live on the Johnson Street property. He recently finished building his front steps.

Valiquette said after the meeting he was heartened to hear comments from supporters and unsurprised by the fears of others. "There's stuff going on in this neighborhood that I don't want to be a part of," he said. "The drugs and violence in Demetral -- it's something we have to deal with on the street."

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