As a massive project comprised of an office building, concert venue and parking ramp on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue moves forward, critics — including Orpheum Theater management — are raising issues with various aspects of the project.
The 800 Block Project, located on the former Don Miller auto dealership lot purchased by the city in 2010 for $5.8 million, would include office space for American Family Insurance, the collaborative entrepreneurial center StartingBlock Madison and a 2,500-person capacity music venue owned and operated by Frank Productions. Gebhardt Development is developing the property.
Orpheum general manager Eve Paras warned parking will be insufficient for increased traffic to the area and the music hall will harm the Madison music scene.
“This proposed hall is not being built to service the Marquette neighborhood, nor does it fill a niche in the Madison market,” Paras said in a statement to the Madison City Council. “It simply allows Frank Productions to now be a promoter of music at their own venue, allowing them to profit off of alcohol sales that will be shifted away — along with city parking revenue — from the venues they currently serve.”
The proposed concert venue aims to book shows with audiences of no less than 1,500 people, Frank Productions Concerts president Charlie Goldstone said. The facility would feature a flexible interior design, allowing the audience area to be made smaller for shows that don't sell out.
"If we go in there and sell 1,500 seats, the artist is going to still feel like playing a full room," Goldstone said.
While Frank Productions has booked shows at a variety of local venues — including the Barrymore Theater, Majestic and High Noon Saloon — this would be the first venue owned by the Madison-based promoter. The Orpheum has not booked shows with Frank Productions since February 2015.
"We really kind of feel like Madison is bursting at the seams, and the demand is there and locally, has been healthy," Goldstone said.
CEO Fred Frank said his company hopes to attract acts that have been passing over Madison or choosing to go to Milwaukee instead.
But Paras said Frank Productions’ model of a flexible venue would upset the balance of theaters in Madison, explaining that the Orpheum works to move shows to other venues in town if they sell fewer or more than the estimated number of tickets, benefiting the wider scene.
“This venue can just move a wall and will keep all the shows under one roof," Paras said. “I don’t know that that’s something that works in the best interest of Madison and Madison music lovers.”
Chris Kalmbach, owner of the Knuckle Down Saloon, located near the intersection of Pflaum and Stoughton Roads on the east side, also expressed concern in a letter to the City Council for his smaller venue.
"Another large venue in town is not going to make new live music fans appear out of thin air, it will simply pull them from the smaller venues already struggling to make it with a form of entertainment that is subject to incredible risks, regulation and licensing fees," Kalmbach said.
The project is part of a continued focus on the commercial corridor extending from the Capitol Square to First Street known as the Capitol East District. Based on the city’s adopted plan and growth trajectory, over 2,000 apartment units and approximately 2.5 million square feet of commercial space will be added to the area over the next two decades, creating a greater need for parking, according to a staff report on the project.
“Even with aggressive efforts to encourage alternative transportation, this growth will bring increasing demand for parking,” the report said. “The City and the development community will need strategic parking solutions in the District that facilitate continued development, while moving toward more efficient and consolidated parking systems, as well as a more multi-modal future.”
The project's parking ramp, with an estimated cost of $16 million, would add 600 parking stalls to the corridor. Funding for the garage at the intersection of East Main and South Livingston streets would use $7 million in tax increment financing, $5 million in city general obligation borrowing, $3 million from the parking utility reserves and $1 million from the land acquisition fund.
Paras, who expressed similar concern over a previous East Washington Avenue concert venue proposal, said the ramp would still be insufficient to satisfy parking demand, especially in a residential area.
She estimates there are about between two and three people per car on average attending a concert, meaning there would be 1,000 cars looking for parking for each sold out show at a 2,500-person capacity venue.
“That still leaves 400 cars that need to be parked in the neighborhood,” Paras, whose family owns the Orpheum, said. “I don’t think they currently have sufficient lighting for increased traffic, pedestrian and car. There’s going to be a need for additional city infrastructure.”
Other critics are concerned about the safety of an influx of people returning to their cars after a show.
“It is unclear how these concert-goers — all able to buy wine, beer and cocktails — will safely cross a crowded East Washington Avenue at midnight to get to cars,” Andrew Gussert said in a letter to the City Council opposing the venue.
Gussert, registered with the city to lobby on behalf of the Orpheum, also compared the music venue portion of the development to the “landline nobody wants or needs” in an internet bundle.
“A bad idea is being obfuscated by hiding it (within) a smart high tech project,” Gussert said. “These projects should be separate votes, where one can be approved, and the other rejected."
Paras is also critical of the parking rates at the facility.
Gebhardt Development and American Family would lease up to 550 for daytime use of the ramp on Mondays through Fridays at an initial rate of $56 per stall, per month, for the first five years, increasing to $68 in years six through 10 and $84 in following years. The remaining 50 stalls would be available for hourly parking during weekdays.
During evenings and weekends, the parking utility would operate the entire structure for hourly and special event uses. A 20-year operating model estimates event parking at $5, making up $300,000 of its expected gross annual revenue of $369,600 if the garage is sold out twice per week.
“The city is funding a ramp for, and it’s structuring profit on, the music venue, and that accounts for 50 percent of its annual income from patrons from the music venue,” Paras said. “That's a big concern that the city is investing in something that relies so heavily on one development.”
At other downtown parking garages, it costs $8 maximum to park on weekends and in the evening. Special event parking is $5 and is put into effect when a large number of people will be attempting to leave a parking garage at the same time. A proposal to increase special event parking to $10 is currently making its way through city committees.
Gary Poulson, the Transit and Parking Commission chair, said he agrees a structured parking facility is needed in the area. From the commission's perspective, he said members would question who would staff the garage and how it would be run.
The City Council is expected to vote on the development agreement Nov. 1.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include information about Andy Gussert's role as a lobbyist for the Orpheum.