Worthington Park wants residents to make themselves at home

Located on the East Side, the Worthington Park neighborhood is one of Madison’s more diverse communities. 

Yet it is also its most transient, with residents cycling in and out quickly of housing around Darbo Drive. The result, said Alfonso Flores, president of the Worthington Park Neighborhood Association, is an area that struggles to maintain a sense of community. This makes it difficult to address many of the challenges facing the neighborhood.

“Cutting into the transient nature of [this] community is key to improving its health,” he said. “If you’re not in a space where you can put down roots and get to know people, that hurts the overall health of the community.”

Flores said transiency impedes community engagement and affects economic growth in the neighborhood—a neighborhood with a history of social and fiscal struggles.

To remedy this problem, the WPNA and the City of Madison are seeking to revamp the community’s housing and development opportunities. Both parties believe development of the nine acres of vacant property along East Washington Avenue can help to alleviate the area’s housing and economic woes.

“We’re sitting on nine acres of property,” Flores said. “There’s a lot of potential [there].”

He said he and other individuals created an umbrella group to improve community engagement and the neighborhood’s economy.  

"We need a solution,” Flores said. “We need to put [a solution] into place soon.”

Today, the Darbo Drive area is home to a mixture of housing types. Some are public, low-income subsidized units supported by the Community Development Authority (CDA) Housing Operations Division and the City of Madison. Others are market-rate units supported by Section 8 vouchers—a federal program aimed at helping low-income families secure housing.  

And while the CDA units are relatively stable, Flores said market-rate developments, like the Eastpointe Apartment complex near Darbo Drive, experience an “endless revolving door.”

“People come here and they don’t feel the ownership to have [an investment] in their apartments,” said Fabiola Hamdan, a social worker with the Dane County Department of Human Services.

Hamdan said the neighborhood’s more permanent residents live in CDA housing units. Yet she said the neighborhood is home to units with expensive rents—rents some residents cannot afford. Unmaintainable rents may be an attribute of the neighborhood’s ongoing poverty problem.

According to Robert Haveman, professor emeritus of Public Affairs and Economics at UW-Madison, increasing levels of poverty reduce the spending power of poor families.  Spending limitations can inhibit economic growth in impoverished communities.

“Low income families have levels of consumption of basic goods and services that violate social norms,” he said.

Heather Stouder, a planner with the City of Madison’s Department of Planning & Community & Economic Development Planning Division, said poverty is an issue the city is eager to address.

"It’s very difficult to point to something in a city budget and think it will solve poverty,” she said. “The city, admittedly, has very limited power in improving people’s lives in a community.”

Stouder, also a member of the Darbo/Worthington Neighborhood Resource Team, said the city is interested in infrastructure development in the neighborhood.

Among the city’s plans is the construction of a street that will connect Darbo Drive with Webb Avenue and run parallel to the nine acres of vacant property.

“[The street] could unlock more development opportunity in the area than what is perceived to be there now,” she said. “It’s definitely going to be a positive investment over the long run.”

While the city has its own ideas and zoning requirements, Stouder said private developers ultimately must help to implement development—be it proposed development of vacant properties or new housing options.

“This is a great spot for new housing types that can support a variety of households over time,” she said.

Flores agreed tht private developers are necessary for the community’s future development.

“I think we might find our answer faster in the private sector,” he said.

His vision for the neighborhood goes further, seeking to instill a sense of ownership for local residents through what he called a “hybrid cooperative model.”  Under such a model, he envisions a resident-owned organization that could provide culinary, technology and job training for the neighborhood’s residents.

Development of the nine acres of land within the coming years is another component of Flores’ vision.

He said he seeks five-story development with first floor retail, such as a restaurant and rentable community space, and affordable housing. Flores hopes the development could be an incubator space for local startups. He is also watchful for private investors and developers interested in securing the property.

“If there were something in the neighborhood that [the residents] actually owned and could develop with an invested interest in, that would minimize that transient nature of the neighborhood,” he said.

Flores said he would also like to see more collaboration among some of the neighborhood’s existing resources — including the Goodman Community Center and Mentoring Positives — to expand the services available to residents.

“If we perfected a system in the neighborhood for community Wi-Fi and support maintenance, why couldn’t we market that to other communities and even expand our tech offerings?” he said. Flores regularly played neighborhood soccer with three kids. The family moved away in August after a year and a half residency in the neighborhood. They moved to a different apartment complex on the North Side.

“They moved out,” Flores said. “They were only here for a couple of years. How can you put down roots like that? If it’s built in that you will move away in six months, why would you care about where you live?”