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Developer revises plans for big redevelopment that saves historic Wonder Bar

Developer revises plans for big redevelopment that saves historic Wonder Bar

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Proposed development

Revised plans for a 12-story project would raze the Coliseum Bar and Banquet but relocate and preserve the historic Wonder Bar, lower left.

After a rebuff, a developer has submitted new concepts for a scaled-back, 12-story housing and commercial project near the Alliant Energy Center that razes the Coliseum Bar and Banquet but saves and relocates the historic Wonder Bar steakhouse.

McGrath Property Group is proposing to demolish the Coliseum Bar, 232 E. Olin Ave., but move the Wonder Bar, 222 E. Olin Ave. to the southwest end of the 1.5-acre site on Olin Avenue for the 12-story structure, which would provide 258 housing units, 18,808 square feet of commercial space and 308 covered parking spaces.

“We believe strongly in the site as a great location for a mixed-use project like we are proposing,” Lance McGrath said.

Dane County and the city of Madison are proposing a $32 million “sustainability campus” on part of the city’s Yahara Hills golf course as part of a planned expansion of the county landfill.

In April, McGrath proposed to demolish the two popular, adjacent, now-closed bar-restaurants for a $40 million-plus, 18-story housing project with 291 apartments, 12,500 square feet of commercial space and parking. The building would likely have been the city’s third-tallest behind the state Capitol and UW-Madison’s Van Hise Hall, and certainly the tallest building with a residential component.

But the proposal stalled amid concerns about the building’s height and scale, and efforts to preserve the Wonder Bar, emblematic of the outposts Chicago gangsters established as roadhouses along highways on the outskirts of cities or in rural areas in the 1930s for bootlegging.

In late July, the Plan Commission unanimously voted to stall the project, with members supportive of the additional housing but objecting to the demolition of the Wonder Bar. Some were opposed to the scale of the project, but others thought the increased density was needed. The commission denied McGrath’s application in a way that the developer could soon come back with a revised proposal.

The new proposal features the 12-story building with a mix of one- two- and three-bedroom units. The housing would be atop four levels of parking and three stories of commercial/office space.

“There have been substantial changes primarily in the scale of the project and how it is accessed,” McGrath said. “Our height has been reduced from 18 stories to 12 stories, which complies with the (draft) South Madison Plan. The other major change is we are preserving the Wonder Bar Building by relocating it on-site.”

“Currently I anticipate the project will be 100% market rate (housing), but we will explore affordable units as we pursue different financing options for the project,” McGrath said.

The project offers 18,808 square feet of commercial space, including a three-story space on the eastern part of the property, 1,241 square feet at the center of the structure’s frontage to East Olin Avenue, plus the 3,358-square-foot Wonder Bar.

Wonder Bar

McGrath Property Group has submitted a new plan that saves and relocates the historic Wonder Bar as part of a 12-story redevelopment.

“The Wonder Bar will be picked up and moved forward on the site toward Olin Avenue,” McGrath said. “This is a pretty significant undertaking and will be one of the first items of work to be done. (We have) no idea on what the future tenant will be but are hoping for a cafe/restaurant/coffee shop use that would be an amenity for the neighborhood and our residents.”

The building also features 7,500 square feet of common amenity terrace space plus private balconies and a landscaped perimeter and enclosed dog run.

Ald. Sheri Carter, whose 14th District includes the site, said, “At first blush I appreciate McGrath Team for incorporating the Wonder Bar into the current plan. I feel that the height is more appropriate than the previous plan and keeping the height closer to John Nolen Drive.”

In its submittal, McGrath said it is working with Carter and Ald. Tag Evers in the adjoining 13th District to set up neighborhood meetings in early December.

McGrath has submitted plans for an informational presentation to the city’s Urban Design Commission on Dec. 1. McGrath could make revisions before submitting formal land use plans, which the developer expects to submit by Dec. 20.

The project would require approvals from the Urban Design Commission, Plan Commission and City Council, city principal planner Kevin Firchow said.

On July 26, Madison residents Alex Saloutos, Henry Doane, Jackie Suska and Joe Lusson, a past president of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, submitted a nomination to make the Wonder Bar a city landmark. Later, Saloutos met with McGrath and they came to an agreement: McGrath would preserve the Wonder Bar on the site in his future proposal and support designating it as a landmark if Saloutos requested the nomination be postponed until after McGrath got city approval for the project. The Landmarks Commission agreed to pause the nomination.

“I think it’s good for the city, good for historic preservation, and good for the developer,” Saloutos said of the revised plans.

If approvals are secured, McGrath hopes to start the project in May and complete it in May 2024.


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