Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Malt House, neighborhood, loses out to big developer

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."

No dice.

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.


Nataraj Hauser said...

There are a lot of people in the immediate vicinity of the Malt House who would love to see him thrive, and to have an outdoor seating area. Perhaps a fund-raiser could happen to get $$$ for the parking lot project. Perhaps Bill could just put out a donation can. I'd be willing to put money where my mouth/fingers are.

Emily said...

That's not a terrible idea, Nataraj. I wonder if anyone's proposed the idea to him? I'm positive there would be bands (mine included) that would be willing to play for such a thing, and at very least, people willing to donate.

Nicole said...

Great post, Emily.

I'd give the Malt House a few bucks toward outdoor seating!

Palmer said...

The $5000 is not correct. The city wants 22 improvements that would total somewhere near $80000. It's not enough to get rid of the potholes - it has to be landscaped, apparently as well, et al.

Emily said...

Yikes, $80k? That would be crazy prohibitive. Where did you get the number?

Palmer said...

It was, I believe culled from the Malt House Facebook page.

"The $5000 estimate for repaving came from my landlord, for patching and sealing a comparable sized lot that they recently did. It's become evident that patching and sealing may not be sufficient to meet the city's requirements.

After the Plan Commission's meeting last night, my landscape architect and I sat down and fleshed out realistic numbers to meet the full impact of the 22(!) conditions for approval. To do everything the city asked will cost approx $80k. They will want to whole parking area brought up to current standards of a brand new lot...including berms, landscaping, etc. Just like if you were getting a new Applebees in the neighborhood. The complete list of hard and soft cost items is: Bike rack, paving, striping, stop sign & installation, accessible parking sign and installation, landscape installation & materials, plat of survey, striping design, site plan revisions, landscape plan, and site planner time/materials. The patio equipment itself was going to cost about $6000. Spending an additonal $80k for a $6k patio doesn't make economic sense."

Briane P said...

I'm surprised, but shouldn't be, at how often companies forego a small profit in hopes of a larger profit -- and end up getting neither.

Go Malt House! I'd support a fundraiser.

Neighbor said...

If we had a sit in with card tables would the owner get fined? :o)

bill said...

Hhmm. The picture in the blog is not the picture of the lot in question. Its easy to blame the landlord (Mcgrath) for the troubles the city is causing. But at the end of the day, its still the city that is putting up the obstacles, not the landlord. Even if the Malt House bought the land, they wouldstill have the city's hoops to jump thru.

Emily said...

bill - The photo is of the empty lot where the Union Corners development was supposed to go.

And if the Malt House were at least able to buy the place, any money poured into renovations and improvements would be an actual sound investment for the owners - as opposed to just beautifying land they may well be kicked out of in a couple year's time.

Anonymous said...

I love going there and the beer they serve. For the hood's sake I want them to stick around, but the bar hasn't been very busy the last dozen times I've been in there. They were just delinquent as of July 1 in renewing their liquor license, which could be an oversight or sign of trouble. My first thought was can the owner afford to buy the property and renovate the lot to the city's requirements? I don't think it is a realistic option and the banks aren't exactly handing out small business loans these days.

The developers spent many many evenings in meetings getting input from neighbors about the Union Corners project. I was there for many of the meetings and never once got the impression that they were the type of people that would "slap around" the little guy. Have you talked to Bill? Did he say he felt slapped around by the landlord?

I'd love it if my landlord added another bathroom, repaved the driveway and added a patio in the backyard, but I don't publicly accuse her of slapping me around if my requested improvements to her property are not made.

This channeling of Tom Joad in defense of the little guy makes for good copy, but I don't think it is really an accurate picture of the situation.

Emily said...

Anon - I hadn't intended to indicate that I thought McGrath was intentionally slapping Rogers around. I've heard nothing that might lead a person to believe there's any maliciousness going on behind the scenes here.

That doesn't stop the situation from sucking. Rogers is interested in purchasing the property, which would make any future investments in parking lot renovations and the like a lot more sensible on his part. But even though McGrath isn't actually doing anything with the property, they don't appear to be willing to make said sale.

I can only guess that they're still hoping to develop the land in the future, when the markets right themselves. But who's to say that the markets will support their plans as-is? Who's to say when the markets will get back to something approaching normal again?

In the meantime, someone who's actively trying to do right by the neighborhood is getting shafted. Maybe not intentionally, but it's shafting nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Unintentionally slapping someone around? That doesn't make much sense or match the tone of the rest of the topic. It sounds a lot like a backpedaling explanation given at a domestic dispute when the cops show up. Siding with the little guy makes for a good story 'mericans love an underdog.

I think the reality of the Union Corners situation is that the developers are willing to sell off portions of the development, see SASYNA meeting regarding CVS. The Malt House corner was never really a major part of the Union Corners plan it was kind of an afterthought acquisition and wasn't really heavily discussed in the planning process IIRC. I am a little skeptical that the developer is refusing to sell the property because they want to preserve the master plan. Possibly the bank financing the property doesn't want the site too partitioned or the offer made by the Bar owner didn't match what the property is worth on the fair market.

For all the vitriol spewed at the developer by my neighbors on madison.com, TDP and the SASYNA yahoo group few of us seem to be getting on our fixies and putting the arses in the bar stools to support the place. It has been very slow the two times I went there since the first picnic table story. But maybe they can't sit because they are sore from the economy kicking everyone's butt and supporting local businesses costs money while uniformed rage is still free.

Emily said...

Good news! A compromise has been struck.

Anonymous said...

So the big evil developer that was giving the little guy the shaft while unintentionally slapping him around personally went out of their way and helped out the little guy? What evil bastards...

The Lost Albatross