A contentious Near East Side development project handily passed the Madison City Council on Monday night as opponents fought the plan they believe will damage the city’s music venues.
Council members voted 17-2 in favor of a development agreement between the city, Gebhardt Development and American Family Insurance for a project that would bring a music venue with a 2,500-person capacity, office space, an entrepreneurial collaboration hub and a city-owned parking ramp to the 800 block of East Washington Avenue.
Critics argued that a concert spot of that size would draw shows away from existing venues. They say without the proposed city-owned, 600-stall parking structure the business couldn’t exist.
“In changes to any ecosystems, the smallest organisms are going to suffer first,” said Chris Kalmbach, the owner of Knuckle Down Saloon, a small music spot on the city’s Southeast Side.
Eve Paras, whose family owns the Orpheum Theater, said they would not have invested as much money into their business had they known about this proposal.
Supporters argued the area is already in need of more parking as recent completed developments and events at nearby Breese Stevens Field have created a demand for expanded parking in the quickly developing corridor.
Not all entertainment establishments were against the plan, though, as Matt Gerding, co-owner of the Majestic Theatre, said cities need spaces of a variety of sizes to accommodate various artists.
“The city should decide this development based on the merits of the development, not on the misguided fears that a 2,500-capacity venue is going to be the demise of a 600-capacity Majestic Theatre,” Gerding said.
Known as the “800 Block Project,” the plan involves a series of land purchases among the several key players that would result in three separately owned structures: the Spark, the Cosmos and the Capitol East Garage.
Gebhardt would develop 60,000 square feet of office space and the music venue, to be operated by Madison-based concert promoter Frank Productions, as the Cosmos building.
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American Family Insurance would construct the Spark, consisting of about 200,000 square feet of office space that it could use to move hundreds of its employees closer to Downtown. StartingBlock Madison, a city-supported entrepreneurial collaborative, would also set up shop in the building.
Both buildings would take over the city-owned lot on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue.
A block away, at the intersection of East Main Street and South Livingston Street, the city is working to buy land owned by Madison Gas & Electric for a $16 million proposed parking ramp, which could include some retail space.
During the day on weekdays, occupants of the Cosmos and Spark buildings could lease up to 550 of the 600 spots, with all of the spaces opening up to the public during evenings and weekends.
Ald. David Ahrens, 15th District, expressed several concerns with the parking ramp, particularly how the businesses will be able to lease spots at $56 per month in the first five years, calling it “inequitable” compared to the rates paid at Downtown ramps.
While Ahrens and Ald. Rebecca Kemble were against the project, the majority of council members touted the benefits the development can bring to the neighborhood and the city as a whole.
“I can only imagine what that incubator is going to do for economic development in this city,” Ald. Denise DeMarb said about the StartingBlock project.
The project’s various components, including the music venue, still need to receive land use approvals.
Also on Tuesday, council members unanimously approved a plan that requires gas station operators to install locks on their pumps that are unique to the business. Concern has risen since several skimmer devices, which can take credit card information, have been found at Madison gas stations.
Members also voted 18-2 to approve OIR Group, of Pasadena, California, to conduct a $400,000 study into the Madison Police Department’s practices, policies and procedures.
OIR Group was recommended last month by a citizen review committee that had also interviewed two other potential firms. Ahrens and Ald. Paul Skidmore voted against the selection.