Janesville homeowners learn of demolition plan in newspaper

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Marcia Nelesen
Saturday, March 8, 2014

JANESVILLE--Janesville homeowners said they found out by reading the newspaper that their homes will be demolished to make way for a new fire station.

The Feb. 26 article in The Gazette advanced a neighborhood meeting about the subject scheduled for that night.

“That's how we found out,” Barb Anderson recalled.

She and the owners of two other homes gathered eight days later in her living room at 630 Prospect Ave.

The residents had received a letter Feb. 20 from the city inviting them to the neighborhood meeting.

But the neighbors described the letter as vague, pointing out it does not specifically say which properties were at risk of being demolished. It also does not include the location of the meeting.

The residents interviewed said they had always assumed one, maybe two houses would be vulnerable to a fire department expansion. The city had, in fact, recently bought a home on Prospect Avenue.

Residents said they thought they would hear at the meeting about possible power disruptions, blocked streets or interrupted water service during construction.

And then they read the newspaper.

No city employees before the meeting or since have knocked on their doors to talk to them about their futures.

Janesville City Council President Kathy Voskuil said Friday she is surprised and upset to hear the neighbors feel blindsided by the city.

“This reiterates even more the need for communication,” Voskuil said, noting city staff at least should have made follow-up phone calls.

The neighbors said they have received no calls from the city.

“The human aspect is more import than the design of the building,” Voskuil said.

Voskuil said she intended to investigate if and how the city could have done a better job working with the neighbors.

The council in closed session Nov. 25 voted to consider two locations to build a $9.5 million fire station. The locations are on or near the current site and would mean the demolition of seven or 12 houses.

The council is scheduled to discuss a final site decision Monday night.

Joyce Shea, 706 Prospect Ave., said she believes “they'd already made their decision” months before the neighborhood meeting was scheduled. Her home would be demolished under the second site option.

After the Feb. 26 meeting, residents were left with seven business days to get an attorney or organize a protest to save their homes before a city council decision, Rebecca Farrell said. Her home would be demolished under the second option.

The residents say they feel isolated, deserted, deceived, bitter, angry, frustrated, helpless and let down by a city where many have lived all their lives.

They wonder:

-- Why didn't they have the right to protest a decision about their homes before it was made?

-- Why didn't someone from the city knock on their doors and contact them personally in the last four months?

-- Why were other numerous options for a fire station site, such as the soon-to-be-vacated city bus garage site, discarded? The reasons given at the meeting did not seem very strong, residents said. Why do firefighters need double the number of bays they have now? Were other options considered, such as storing reserve equipment elsewhere, rather than tearing down a historic neighborhood? Doesn't the city see any other options other than taking their homes?

-- Shouldn't the city hold a referendum to ask voter permission to spend $9.5 million on a project?

-- What is the rush to get the fire station project done?

All interviewed said they feared they would not be able to afford a comparable house in another neighborhood.

Residents said they don't have any information. They say they are sick worrying about an uncertain future.

Rebecca Farrell paid $60,000 for the 1920s brick Prairie Craftsman house at 339 Milton Ave. It was in tough shape. The couple has since put in another $60,000 into the house, including a new kitchen.

“That house is so solid,” Rebecca Farrell said. “It's so right for us.”

“It's our little mansion.

“I want to paint a big sign,” Rebecca Farrell said: “This is a family home. We've lived here for 13 years.”

Dave Farrell hasn't cooked in his renovated kitchen since he heard his house might come down.

The only comparable home they have found is priced at $200,000. Both Farrells are working for less money now than in the past. Their home was their retirement strategy. They talked to a home lender, and she told them they could not get financing, Dave Farrell said.

The couple said they approached Judy Adler, relocation coordinator hired by the city, at the meeting with their worries.

She suggested they rent.

Barb Anderson, 74, lives in a 850-square-foot home with a finished basement. She bought the home—her first—when she was 50 and recently added new windows, siding and roof to ready for her retirement.

Her home would be razed under either option.

“I find it hard to believe any compensation would be enough to put me in a similar home with all the same upgrades, the same tax level, and not be left with house payments,” she said.

Anderson said she stared to cry recently as she backed from her driveway, wondering how much longer she would be there.

Shea, 75, said she always thought she'd be carried out of her home, not pushed out.

She figures she will use any money from the sale of her home to rent. Then, she figures she will be forced into low-income housing.

The neighbors all agree the firefighters need a new facility.

“But the way that this has happened—I do not support it,” Anderson said.

“I just get the feeling—they act like we are some sort of gutter neighborhood,” Rebecca Farrell said.

“We love each other. We help each other out.”

The residents describe themselves as living “on the point.” They have gatherings, take out each other's trash and help each other mow and shovel walks.

“I've always felt the fire department was a part of our neighborhood,” Rebecca Farrell said.

“I want someone to come down and tell me that they're sorry,” Rebecca said, starting to cry.

“I want someone to say, 'We understand the sacrifice you are making and appreciate it.'

“Not one fire person or city employee has the balls to say that to us.”

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