The Madison Landmarks Commission is delaying decisions on revised plans for a mixed-use project on a prominent Downtown block that would demolish the Essen Haus restaurant and reuse the neighboring Come Back In tavern.
To move forward, McGrath Property Group needs commission approvals for a land combination and for construction of a new principal structure in a historic district.
In a report, city preservation planner Heather Bailey said staff does not believe the proposal meets standards for either approval and recommended the commission refer the proposal so changes can be made to satisfy requirements.
After a public hearing and discussion on Monday, the commission referred the project until July 8 to get a city attorney opinion on whether the land combination question must be addressed first before proceeding to the construction approval. The lot size must be compatible with adjacent lot sizes and the lot size pattern of the historic district.
The commission also offered suggestions for reducing the massing of the redevelopment.
McGrath has a contract to buy three buildings in the center of the 500 block of East Wilson Street, a large parking lot behind them and four houses from 110 to 120 S. Blair St.
The developer isn’t buying the landmark Hotel Ruby Marie and its Up North Bar at the corner of East Wilson and South Blair streets or the tiny vacant lots at 502-504 E. Wilson St., where the former O’Cayz Corral bar stood before it was destroyed by fire in 2001.
McGrath, which has already downsized plans after input from the neighborhood and city staff, still would raze Essen Haus, 514 E. Wilson St., and a small adjacent commercial building in poor condition at 518 E. Wilson St., for a five-story structure that would have 153 apartments, 11,000 square feet of commercial space and 220 internal, structured parking stalls.
The Come Back In would be renovated as a separate building and provide some of the commercial space for the overall project. The four houses at 110 to 120 S. Blair St. would be preserved, as some in the neighborhood had sought.
McGrath is under contract to buy the properties from Robert Worm, who has owned the buildings and the popular establishments — but not the vacant lot — since 1983.
Most of the site is in the First Settlement Historic District, but the East Wilson Street frontage is in the National Register of Historic Places, not the local historic district.
“It’s a challenging site,” Lance McGrath told the commission Monday evening. “We’re trying to balance a lot of things here. It has to be financially feasible. I just can’t see a smaller, more intimate development ever happening on this site.”
The revised concept still shows a taller single story along both East Wilson and South Blair streets to allow for better commercial spaces and to shield the parking structure. Above that level on those streets would be four stories of housing. The structure would step down from five to three stories, the scale of the neighboring Germania Apartments, on South Franklin Street.
The revised concept is considerably smaller than the five-story redevelopment shared in late March that would have delivered 240 apartments, up to 20,000 square feet of commercial space, 340 parking spaces and required demolition of the housing.
Supporters said the project would be a vast improvement for the block and deliver much-needed housing, but others said it’s still too big, would bring congestion to South Franklin Street and change the character of the historic district.
The project also needs approvals from the Plan and Urban Design commissions, and if McGrath seeks to exceed height limits, the proposal would also go to the City Council.