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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Losing the farm
The Novation Campus is billed as a boon for the town of Madison. But is it a good deal for the neighborhood?
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Credit:Craig Wilson

Wajid Jenkins spent much of the summer of 2002 on his knees, carrying his infant daughter on his back, digging his fingers into the warm, black soil at Drumlin farm.

Jenkins had come to the farm as an agricultural intern, hoping to learn organic farming methods. He was immediately drawn by the beauty of Drumlin - a tiny, five-acre rural oasis sandwiched between Rimrock Road and Highway 14 in the city of Fitchburg.

"I was working in the fields overlooking the Nine Springs marsh," recalls Jenkins. "I was learning to plant onions for the first time and watching the geese flying overhead."

At the time, Drumlin was operated as a CSA (community supported agriculture), where the public could buy shares of produce from the farm. Jenkins would hitch a trailer to his bike and cycle all over town, delivering boxes of vegetables.

He lived in one of two farmhouses on the Drumlin land. A trapeze hung from the trees - the founders of Cycropia Aerial Dance used to live there too. UW students would come on field trips. Small delegations of farmers from around the world would visit to talk about sustainable agriculture.

"It was a real dynamic place," says Jenkins, "with a lot of interesting people coming and going."

But the farm was rental property. The owner, Icke Construction, had long made it clear that it wanted to sell the land to a developer. In the late '90s, some of Drumlin's supporters tried without success to raise enough cash to buy the land.

After Jenkins arrived in 2002, residents learned that the Alexander Co. was buying up property in the surrounding Southdale neighborhood. By 2004, says Jenkins, the developer was "already cutting down trees and knocking down houses." By 2007, the company had bought Drumlin farm.

The Alexander Co. was acquiring land for Novation Campus, its $120 million, 70-acre business park. The company moved its headquarters into one of the first buildings on the campus, just off Rimrock Road. So far, it has built seven commercial buildings, including a car dealership.

Joe Alexander, the company's president, touts the project as a boon for the town of Madison, where most of the land is located. "One of the reasons nobody had come here and built anything was because it was a brownfield," he says.

The site had been home to two private landfills: one for construction debris, the other for fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal. In addition, the Southdale neighborhood had a dismal reputation. Most of the property was rental, and the crime rate was high. There was no commercial development, except for a strip mall with an Open Pantry.

"It certainly developed a stigma as a difficult neighborhood," says Alexander, the son of prominent Madison developer Randy Alexander. "It was underutilized, and it was easy for us to look at it and envision something different."

But residents say Alexander's plans don't include them. They feel that the development has moved forward with little public input and that low-income residents are being pushed out. And at the heart of the battle is Drumlin farm, now the site of community gardens. More than 30 families rented plots there last summer.

Alexander's artistic rendering of Novation Campus shows a parking lot and multi-story building where the gardens are now. And those living at Drumlin, including Jenkins, must move out by next week.

"This is unique land in a neighborhood that doesn't have any options for a garden," says Kristine Pettersen, one of the Drumlin residents. "What's the point of building another office building on top of a unique resource? Why can't they build somewhere else?"

'A generally supported idea'

Most developers would shy away from a project like Novation Campus. Much of the land is in the town of Madison, which means rezoning requests have to go through Dane County. The parcel containing Drumlin Community Gardens is in the city of Fitchburg. And since Fitchburg and the city of Madison will absorb the town in 2022, there's also a boundary agreement that can affect development.

"The political aspects of this thing are wild," says Alexander. "This is not something a lot of people take on. It's much easier to mow down a cornfield."

But it's clear the Alexander Co. knows how to work the system. Towns had previously not been allowed to create tax-incremental financing (TIF) districts. The company lobbied the state Legislature to change the law, letting towns with border agreements give developers TIF money. Gov. Jim Doyle came to the Novation Campus in 2005 to sign the bill into law.

Without the change, says Alexander, the development might have been put on hold until the town was annexed by the two cities, which could offer TIF funds. "Nobody wanted to see this area be at a standstill until 2022," he says. "This was a generally supported idea because it can be applied to other towns in this situation."

After the law passed, the town of Madison created two TIF districts. One gave the Alexander Co. $3 million for brownfield remediation. The other could give the company up to $12 million in TIF funds to help with the project.

Normally, developers submit a formal TIF application, which includes financial documents that explain why the company couldn't do the project without public assistance. The Alexander Co. has not yet applied for any more funding. But town Chair Jim Campbell says the town is "committed" to giving the developer $12 million.

"It couldn't be done without TIF," says Campbell, who has yet to see Alexander's justification for these funds. "The economics of it just aren't there."

The promise of so much public funding upsets some Southdale residents, who say Alexander Co. ought to be giving the public something in return.

"If there are any public funds, then there has to be a real measurable benefit for the neighborhood," says Jenkins. "I feel there's a moral obligation to give something to the community."

Last summer, the neighborhood tried to get the Alexander Co. to sign a Community Benefits Agreement, which would require it to negotiate benefits with the neighborhood, such as affordable housing, job training and space for a community garden. Residents told Dane County's zoning committee they would support the developer's zoning petition if Alexander signed the agreement.

The zoning committee added an amendment to the zoning petition that encouraged Alexander to take a more active role in meeting with the neighborhood. Jenkins calls it a "toothless" provision: "We ended up coming away with no real concession from the Alexander Co."

Campbell says Novation Campus will bring new tax revenue and jobs to the town of Madison. The town has done no formal survey of how many jobs the development has created so far, but Campbell guesses about 700. He can't say how many are from the neighborhood.

Pettersen sees this as an empty promise. "It's gonna be jobs for wealthy people," she complains. Neighborhood residents will at best be "cleaning the offices of wealthy people."

And while work has begun on a new administrative building for Meriter Hospital at the Novation site, those 280 health service jobs are not new, residents note. They'll simply be relocated from elsewhere in Dane County.

Campbell gets defensive when asked about the benefits Novation Campus will bring to Southdale residents. "What should they get out of it?" he demands, before complaining that a reporter's questions are "adversarial" and predicting that the story will be "very slanted."

'Total wall of silence'

It was a sunny day at the end of last October. Paula Brotski, a student in human ecology at UW-Madison, got up early. She needed to drop her 9-year-old son off at school, then go to campus for a mid-term exam. Before she left, she paused to admire the view outside her living room windows. Her condo faced a stand of oak trees bordering the Drumlin gardens.

Brotski left at 7 a.m. When she got back home at 3 p.m., the trees were gone. The Alexander Co. was clearing the site to build a stormwater retention pond and a main road that would run through the Novation Campus.

"Nothing was left," says Brotski. "There were these huge oak trees, and it was just limbs."

Her son liked to play in those woods, says Brotski. During the summer, they would walk through them on their way to the garden plot they had at Drumlin. Hawks nested in the treetops. Brotski had strung birdfeeders all along her balcony to attract migratory birds.

She says her son was heartbroken when he learned the trees were gone. "He said, 'Mom I don't want to live here anymore.' And I don't blame him."

Joe Alexander says it was necessary to cut down the trees so that the company could put in the road, bike paths and sidewalks. "It's hard to put infrastructure under existing trees," he says.

Brotski complains the Alexander Co. never contacted residents to let them know the trees would be removed. "They didn't mention anything about strip clearing," she says angrily. "I don't remember them saying it, because my ears would have perked up if they had."

Residents fault the Alexander Co. for not keeping them informed. "I think they've given lip service to inclusion," says Pettersen. "The reality is from the very start it's been hard to reach them." And Jenkins says the neighborhood's efforts since 2006 to learn more about Novation have been met with "a total wall of silence."

Alexander counters that residents have known for years that development was coming. "This is not a surprise to anyone," he says, adding that as the company took over rental property in the neighborhood, it made sure tenants knew about the plans when they re-signed leases.

Last fall, Alexander Co. spokesman Dan Peterson went door-to-door, letting residents know about upcoming construction: "We wanted to take a proactive approach." He says many residents told him they were happy about the development.

But, in fact, it was the city of Fitchburg that finally prodded the Alexander Co. to start holding neighborhood meetings about the development.

The city requires a neighborhood plan for any development. This was needed for the Novation Campus because Drumlin Community Gardens is in Fitchburg.

According to Fitchburg Ald. Jay Allen, the company was initially reluctant: "Alexander wanted to litigate to prevent the plan." Allen also criticizes the town of Madison, which took over creation of the neighborhood plan, for allowing the Alexander Co. to pay for it. Alexander hired its own consultant, JJR Inc.

"Alexander was really in charge of the planning process," says Allen, noting the original version of the plan left out affordable housing and transit.

JJR held the first neighborhood meeting on the plan in January 2007, which Jenkins calls "the first time Alexander had come in four years to the neighborhood." The meeting was poorly attended, in part, says Jenkins, because the company had notified property owners, not renters. "Most of the people in the neighborhood are not homeowners."

'The best land we have'

Initially, the Alexander Co. planned to hold only three or four meetings in 2007. But when it became clear that the loss of Drumlin Community Gardens would be a contentious issue, Allen and Ald. Steve Arnold asked the company to hold additional meetings in 2008.

The original Southdale plan suggested moving the Drumlin gardens to Southdale Park, a five-acre plot that is already crammed with a soccer field, baseball field, play equipment and shelter. The garden would have been sited on the park's wooded hillside, which meant more trees would have been cut down.

"Southdale Park is heavily used," says Jenkins, and the tiny space would be "insufficient" for a garden.

Residents wanted the gardens to stay at Drumlin. The site has been a farm for more than a century. "It's going to be hard to find a comparable site," says Brotski, bemoaning the company's intransigence on this point. "I don't think they're really listening to what we want. If they did, Drumlin wouldn't be such a problem."

But Joe Alexander says Drumlin is key to the whole project. It's in a prime location, right off Highway 14. "It's the best land we have to develop on. It helps bring the campus together in a cohesive way. It's property we purchased for that intention. Purchased for a not-insignificant amount of money."

Records from Dane County Register of Deeds show that the house Jenkins lives at, and surrounding acreage, sold for about $3.5 million.

The Alexander Co. agreed to let the gardens stay in place during the summer of 2008. And what Joe Alexander calls "a temporary garden" will exist on the site through the 2009 growing season.

On Dec. 2, the Fitchburg Plan Commission held a meeting to approve the Southdale Neighborhood Plan. About 80 people showed up, most speaking in support of Drumlin. Some even put on a skit about the gardens, where a bulldozer pretended to mow down vegetables.

The commission ultimately approved the plan, with language urging that a community garden be kept in Southdale. The plan also recognized that Drumlin was part of the neighborhood's existing resources.

But it did not say that the gardens should remain at Drumlin, nor did it specify a new location.

A week later, Jenkins, Pettersen and the others living at Drumlin received a notice from the Alexander Co. that their month-to-month lease would not be renewed. They have to be out next week.

"It's just another way to destroy the gardens," says Pettersen of the notice. "They're kicking us out and probably have plans to burn down the house."

She's not kidding. Over the past year, the Alexander Co. has emptied half a dozen residential homes in the neighborhood. When the houses are vacant, it lets local fire departments burn the structures down for training exercises.

'We brought a vision'

As of right now, the Alexander Co. has no specific development plan for the Drumlin site. In this economy, it won't build without a secured tenant. But Joe Alexander says it's clearing the site because the houses are in "very rough shape" and would need extensive repairs.

"It's cost-prohibitive to manage these homes," he says. "They're blighted. It is something we would prefer not to maintain."

Brotski sees something more sinister in Alexander's action. It's been an uphill battle to organize the mostly low-income neighborhood. And now, she says, "the people who have been advocating are being evicted from the farm. By evicting them, it makes it harder."

Some residents also feel abandoned by their public representatives. During the planning process, they asked to have materials about the development made available online. But the town of Madison does not even have the names of its town chair and town board on its website, much less the minutes of any meetings or a copy of the updated Southdale Neighborhood Plan.

"At this juncture, the town should be looking out for residents," says Fitchburg's Allen. "I think the town could do more."

Fitchburg Mayor Tom Clauder initially put approving the Southdale Neighborhood Plan on the agenda for the Plan Commission's Nov. 4 meeting - the same night as the presidential election. The item was eventually postponed to Dec. 2. Clauder has chided residents for not working more cooperatively with the Alexander Co.

"You want to talk to Alexander," he says. "You don't want to come in with a bunch of sticks and beat them on the head."

Jenkins says the neighborhood is simply asking to be included in development that affects them. "We didn't bring a stick, we brought a vision of a positive community effort."

There are efforts to preserve at least one of the houses on the Drumlin site. The "pink house" is more than 100 years old, built by the same Swedish carpenter who did the Collins House in Madison. The Fitchburg Historical Society recently voted unanimously to urge the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider it for landmark status. The society praised the house's handcrafted woodwork, its stained glass and painted murals.

Alexander says it would cost too much to remodel the house. "Even if it was worth saving that house, the thing's in really rough shape," he says, adding that the old house is "not the highest and best use of the property. This is part of the urban core of Madison." The company plans to demolish both houses on the Drumlin site.

Jenkins is now looking for a new place to live. He hopes to stay in Southdale. "There's a lot of unresolved stuff," he says. "I'm not about to walk away from here."

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