Want a great, if infuriating, example of why we're in our current economic mess? Look no further than the current trials and tribulations of Madison's own Malt House, a craft beer bar located at the corner of E. Washington and Milwaukee St.
The establishment's owner, Bill Rogers, very much wanted to add a little bit of outdoor seating for his patrons--three picnic tables and two chairs. Seems straight-forward enough, right? But unfortunately for Rogers, in order to get permission from the city for said seating, the adjacent parking lot, which is in considerable disrepair, would need to be re-paved. The cost of such work is estimated at about $5,000, a prohibitively large sum for a small business owner.
The City Plan Commission has been wrestling with this question, certain members trying to find a work-around so the Malt House could go ahead with the seating without having to re-pave, for a little while now. On Monday night, however, the final decision came down: they "OK’d a conditional use permit for outdoor seating at the Malt House but failed to lift a requirement that an adjacent gravel parking lot be repaved."
It'd be easy enough to get angry at the Plan Commission for jerking around a small business owner on an issue that seems, at a glance, to be fairly cut-and-dry. It's just a few picnic tables placed on a cement slab, after all. No trees would be uprooted, no sight-lines interrupted. In fact, the Malt House is one of the few establishments along that corridor doing its level best to bring economic development and stability--especially since the vaunted Union Corners project that had been planned for the area was stalled when the economy took its turn for the terrible.
And that's where attention really ought to be focused. The Union Corners development was and is run by McGrath Associates, the Madison-based company that's also in charge of things like the Nolan Shore condos. Malt House owner Rogers has offered to buy the empty lot in question from them, but McGrath is apparently still holding out hope that Union Corners will rise from the dead and apparently isn't willing to sell.
In the meantime, a gaping hole in the city's landscape remains, and the one business that's actually working through the recession is getting slapped around for trying to do the right thing--not by the Plan Commission, which is simply doing its job by following the letter of the law, frustrating as it is--but rather by McGrath Associates.
The story has become all-too common. Individuals and developers got carried away in the building boom, working fast and hard to throw up as many buildings and make as much money as possible without much regard for solid, sustainable planning or realistic pricing. Somewhat predictably, everything eventually crumbled down around them, but instead of facing the facts, many of them are holding out hope that they can still make the money they promised themselves back in the halcyon days--instead of accepting their losses and moving on. And by not moving on, they often screw over those business people who are actually interested in doing something productive with the land.
It was and is that kind of hubris and poor planning that got us into this mess, and now it's helping to keep us down in it. Banks that won't let short-sales go through so that homes just end up going to rot, developers that stubbornly hold onto property even as it sits idle and molders. What good is that doing anyone? Instead of desperately clinging to the notion that everything will just go back to how it was Before, we need to take action to actually improve upon how these things are done--so that responsible businesses can go on being responsible, and so that we can avoid situations like this in the future.