When Willy Street business leader Lindsey Lee opened a second coffee shop 12 years ago in an abandoned gas station on South Park Street, he vowed never to open a third location — unless an opportunity too good to pass up came along.
That opportunity has apparently arrived.
A Cargo Coffee will anchor the bottom floor of a new high-rise apartment building that many see as the first step in the long discussed but slow to happen rebirth of the blighted East Washington Avenue corridor.
“There is just so much excitement going on there right now and I’m glad to be a part of it,” says Lee, who took another chance on a redeveloping area in 1998 when he opened his first coffee shop, Ground Zero, at 744 Williamson St.
Scheduled for a mid-September opening, the East Wash Cargo Coffee will offer an expanded food menu, along with beer and wine. It will also feature 15-foot ceilings that open into a mezzanine area with upper-level seating.
“It’s a great space architecturally,” says Lee.
The new building, known as the Constellation, is being developed by Otto Gebhardt III, along with architect Chris Gosch of Bark Design. Construction is moving along quickly, with tenants scheduled to move in by August.
Set at the corner of the 700 block of East Washington Avenue and Livingston Street, the project includes 32,500 square feet of commercial space on the first three floors and 220 high-end apartments on the top eight floors above a 275-stall parking structure.
Rents will range from $2,095 for three-bedroom units to $895 for efficiencies, with one-bedroom units priced at $1,295 to $1,410 depending on the views, which are impressive.
Marketing materials for the building tout the proximity to everything from the Capitol Square to the Dane County Regional Airport:
“Step outside your door, and you’re less than a ten minute walk from music venues, clubs and bars; from Madison’s nationally famous Farmers' Market, Overture Center and State Street; from shops eclectic to European, retro to modern, high-end to kitsch and everything in-between.”
Gebhardt says he was approached by several national coffee shop operators when construction began on the $32 million project but declined those offers.
“I just didn’t want to go that way,” says Gebhardt, 45, a Madison native who attended East High School and has been active on the local real estate scene since purchasing and refurbishing the 26-unit Colonial Corner apartment building at 2617 E. Johnson St. in 1995.
Instead of going with a chain coffee shop, Gebhardt reached out to Lee, who has been heavily involved in neighborhood issues since opening Ground Zero in a former warehouse building 15 years ago, using $5,000 he earned liquidating the inventory of his uncle's hat shop in Flint, Mich., and $20,000 from Anchor Bank.
“I’m pretty excited to get Lindsey in there,” says Gebhardt. “I’ve known him a long time and they’ve got a great product.”
Lee says he was initially reluctant when Gebhardt contacted him about renting space in the Constellation, even suggesting the developer try one of his local competitors like Barriques. But after giving it some thought, Lee jumped, figuring another east-side location wouldn’t hurt business at Ground Zero.
“East Wash and Willy Street are really two separate corridors,” says Lee. “There is still more development happening around Willy Street so I think Ground Zero will continue to do OK.”
The new Cargo will also feature something Ground Zero doesn’t have: a drive-through window to capture commuter traffic coming downtown — or Constellation tenants heading out, for example, to their jobs at Epic Systems in Verona.
Meanwhile, plans continue to move forward for development of the 800 block of East Washington Avenue. That site, along with the Constellation site, were part of the city’s 2010 purchase of the old Don Miller car dealership for $5.8 million with an eye toward revitalizing the corridor.
A city committee is now considering three different proposals that all feature a mix of office space, apartments and a grocery store aimed at serving both the existing Tenney-Lapham neighborhood and attracting new businesses.
Gebhardt has again gotten into the game, this time with the owners of Metcalfe's Market; together they are proposing a full-sized, 50,000-square-foot grocery store mixed with commercial and retail space, structured parking and high-rise apartments.
A proposal from C.D. Smith calls for a 30,000-square-foot Madison Fresh Market grocery along with a bike repair shop in more of a mid-rise building.
T. Wall Enterprises is proposing a mixed-use project with a brick design meant to complement Breese Stevens Field on the 900 block of East Washington. It would also include a Madison Fresh Market.
Earlier plans for an office/commercial building on the 800 block site from Urban Land Interests failed to materialize last year when the developer and city couldn’t reach an agreement on tax incremental financing. ULI was also having difficulty finding anchor business tenants for the site.
To that end, adding more high-rise apartments on East Washington Avenue does conflict somewhat with the city’s long-range land-use plan, which called for making the corridor an employment center. The thinking was the residential development would follow after some high-tech businesses set up shop.
But Lee says the opposite might be more realistic, that employers may decide to locate near where talented people are living.
“There is a natural progression there,” he says. “You have to believe that if we are building a lot of apartments someone would see all these highly skilled young people living in this corridor and think ‘Wow, we can cherry-pick here.’ People can work down the street or across the street and won’t have to drive to Verona.”
After so many disappointments on East Washington Avenue, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.