The Essen Haus restaurant, 514 E. Wilson St., would be demolished for a housing and commercial project.

In response to feedback from city staff and downtown Madison neighbors, a developer has downsized a concept proposal for the redevelopment of a property on East Wilson and South Blair Streets, the current site of Essen Haus German restaurant, Come Back In tavern and other properties.

The plans were altered to save four houses on South Blair Street. Lance McGrath, owner of the McGrath Property Group, confirmed in an email that demolishing those houses is no longer on the table.

“After several meetings with the neighborhood and Alder (Marsha) Rummel it was very clear to us that the four homes are very important to the neighborhood. At this point we are separating those parcels from our proposal entirely — and we do not have a plan yet for them,” he wrote.

In March, Ald. Marsha Rummel announced on her blog that McGrath Property Group had an accepted offer to purchase the “Essen Haus properties." That includes a large surface parking lot, Essen Haus Restaurant and Bar at 514 E. Wilson St., Come Back In bar at 508 E. Wilson St., and four rental houses from 110 to 118 S. Blair St. At the time, Tim Parks, a planner for the city, said the mixed-use development called for about 250 apartment units, but noted "what we know now may still evolve."

In a recently submitted Urban Design Commission application, Marc Schellpfeffer with CaS4 Architecture wrote that earlier plans would demolish four rental houses to create about 240 apartments, 10,000 to 20,000 square feet of commercial space and a 340-stall parking structure. The plans called for five stories along South Blair and East Wilson Streets, coming down to three stories in other areas.

But in meetings with city staff and the neighborhood, the developer heard that keeping the four Blair Street houses was a “common point of interest,” Schellpfeffer wrote.

Bert Stitt, a former president of Capitol Neighborhoods, Inc., and longtime resident of the First Settlement neighborhood previously told the Cap Times that while McGrath’s proposal is “among the best so far” for the property, he had concerns about the plans to demolish those four homes, which are in the First Settlement Historic District.

“Those houses are not easily scheduled for removal,” he said. “When we created the local historic district, we specifically included those houses.”

He said the buildings represent “modest” homes from decades ago.

“It’s a very important historic place. It doesn't have the high-end significance of Mansion Hill or the state Capitol, and I think it’s important that humble historic places also be respected and saved,” he said.

McGrath has since changed plans to keep the houses, and because of this, the new concept proposal is smaller in size: it would build 180 apartments, 9,000 to 10,000 square feet of commercial space and 208 structured parking stalls. It would remain a five-story development at its height, with a “taller single story” on the ground floor of some parts of the development “to allow for better commercial spaces.”

The Come Back In building will be renovated, but The Come Back In business is “not part of the future plan,” McGrath wrote, and said he anticipates using the first floor as commercial or retail space and the upper level as office space. Original plans would have saved 518 E. Wilson (part of the Essen Haus), but the building was “found to not be in a condition that makes renovation viable,” Schellpfeffer wrote, listing problems like a collapsing foundation. The rest of the Essen Haus would also be demolished.

Construction is slated to begin in October and be ready for occupancy in April 2021.

Robert Worm has long owned much of the property in the area, including Essen Haus, Come Back In, Up North Bar at 150 S. Blair St. and the Hotel Ruby Marie and Lakeview Bakery & Deli at 524 E. Wilson St. 

The Hotel Ruby Marie and two empty lots fronting East Wilson Street, 502 and 504 E. Wilson St. — occupied by O'Cayz Corral and Cay'z Comic Strip until a 2001 fire destroyed the buildings — are not part of the proposal.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts to redevelop the site. In 2004, developers proposed a 16-story mixed-use building, which was later downsized to an eight-story development, neither of which panned out. In 2016, Worm collaborated with Kothe Real Estate Partners on plans for a mixed-use development that would leave the historic Hotel Ruby Marie untouched but demolish other properties to build a possible 10-story building. Worm paused the plans in 2017.

Alds. Rummel and Mike Verveer are hosting a neighborhood meeting on the topic this Thursday, April 25 at 7 p.m. in the Madison Municipal Building, 215 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in room 215.

Due to a typo on Ald. Marsha Rummel's blog, this article previously stated the location of the neighborhood meeting as taking place in the City Council Building. 

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