Late last year, owners a new development on Williamson Street were involved in a heated dispute with a neighboring business over access to parking spaces.
Monday night, owners of a restaurant in the development appeared before the Madison Plan Commission to ask for a reduction in the number of spaces required to operate, but the commission denied their requests after several neighborhood members expressed frustration with the venue’s changing plans for parking and capacity.
“This is, as many of the speakers alluded to, a difficult thing for the neighborhood and for me, because everyone likes and supports the concept ... we wanted to support the restaurant,” Ald. Marsha Rummel said. “So now it feels kind of awkward … I’m not against them, but I’m against their capacity.”
The property at 904 Williamson Street, known as Willy Street Central, is a joint project of Chuck Chvala and Louis Fortis, both former Democratic state legislators. The four-story building includes 25 residential units, and the first floor of the building is slated for Fuegos, a Latin-inspired steakhouse with vegan food on the menu.
There was a dispute in late 2016 between the Willy Street Central landlords and Kris Warren, the owner of neighboring properties, including Cha Cha Hair Salon, over access to parking spaces. At the Plan Commission meeting on Monday, the owners of Willy Street Central were asking for conditional use approvals for Fuegos that would decrease the number of required parking spaces while increasing capacity of the restaurant.
Last October, the Madison Alcohol License Review Committee approved a capacity of 120 for the restaurant with a 12-seat outdoor patio, which would require a 20-stall parking reduction. Parking reductions of 20 stalls or less are approved by the city’s zoning administrator, and requests above 20 stalls are referred to the Plan Commision for approval.
On Monday, the restaurant operator, Oscar Villarreal, asked for conditional use approvals to increase the restaurant’s capacity to 176, with an interior capacity of 148 and two outdoor patios with capacities of 12 and 16 people, and to reduce parking by 28 stalls.
Rummel, along with a representative of the Marquette Neighborhood Association and a neighborhood resident, spoke against approving the conditional use requests.
“This proposal has been really awkward for us. The Marquette Neighborhood Association strongly supported this restaurant back in September when there was a proposal for 120 capacity and one outdoor seating area,” said John Coleman, a member of the MNA board. “The board really wants to support the restaurant, but can’t support the restaurant with expanded capacity, the need for reduction in parking requirements and the second patio.”
Coleman and Rummel spoke of their frustration with the changing plans of the project.
“To be honest, we’re kind of mystified as to how we got into such a bad situation here, where there’s a restaurant that we would like to support but can’t,” Coleman said.
“There’s some sense that we’re being held hostage by a good operator with a landlord that knows that we want it,” Rummel said.
Rummel suggested denying the conditional use proposals for a parking reduction and extra patio, and approving the measures approved by the ALRC: a 120-person capacity restaurant with one outdoor patio.
She said the parking problem started with the Plan Commission’s initial approval of the Willy Street Central development, which did not require commercial parking spaces, although the first floor of the building is commercial space.
“I want to just kind of complain to you, that you didn’t do your job when you approved this building,” Rummel told the commission.
Lindsey Lee, the owner of nearby Ground Zero Coffee, also spoke in opposition to the conditional use approvals. He described himself as a strong supporter of the project at first.
He said that at multiple neighborhood meetings, the owners and developers of Willy Street Central were asked whether access to Cha Cha’s off-street parking lot would be maintained, and they said it would.
“We took them at their word,” Lee told the commission. “They did not act in good faith to do so.”
The Willy Street Central development has blocked Williamson Street access to Cha Cha’s parking lot, forcing Cha Cha patrons to resort to illegal access to the lot through another of Warren’s nearby properties at 303 S. Paterson St.
The owner of Cha Cha, Shelly Schmidt, started a petition to save access to its parking lot. The petition alleged that an original agreement between Fortis, Chvala and Schmidt’s landlord, Warren, allowed Cha Cha customers access to the lot through Willy Street Central property, but that Fortis “backed out of the agreement” and tried to renegotiate, asking for free parking at other properties owned by Warren on Paterson Street.
Fortis said that the original agreement allowed access to Cha Cha's parking lot through the Willy Street Central property in exchange for use of Warren's Paterson Street parking lots in the evenings.
“Chuck Chvala has been trying to leverage Cha Cha’s parking to gain access to all of Warren’s other nearby properties for parking,” Lee said. “It is totally in bad faith for Chuck Chvala to ask for special consideration to ask for a parking reduction while at the same time denying Cha Cha’s their long established off-street parking.”
“Mr. Chvala and Mr. Fortis do not have clean hands here. They have not done anything to relieve their own problem before coming to you,” Lee said.
The commission approved the conditional use agreement for a 12-seat patio, but denied the conditional use permits for an additional patio and for a parking reduction.
"We will continue to work to ensure that the neighborhood, the city and Fuegos can come to a fair agreement" concerning parking and capacity, Fortis said in an email.