Years in the making, Olbrich Botanical Gardens is preparing for a $10 million expansion that will provide new educational, greenhouse and office spaces at one of the city’s most popular destinations.

Olbrich, which drew a record 300,396 visitors in 2016 and expects to surpass that number this year, has outgrown facilities and needs space to continue and expand programs and efficiently grow plants for the celebrated outdoor gardens, director Roberta Sladky said.

“We need dedicated education space if we’re going to stay true to our mission,” Sladky said.

A two-story, 8,500- square-foot Learning Center, to be located off the existing main lobby on the garden side, will provide flexible space that can be converted from one to three classrooms and enable Olbrich to do more school programs, writing camps for youth and teens, and provide more flexibility for educational programs, especially on weekends, she said.

The current 9,600-square- foot greenhouse, Sladky said, “is old and not very efficient.”

By demolishing the existing greenhouse and building a more efficient one roughly the same size, Olbrich will be able to produce more plants for its gardens, offer better growing space for the extensive orchid collection, and create a better work environment for staff and volunteers, she said.

The $10 million cost would be split between the city and the private Olbrich Botanical Society, which jointly run the gardens at 3330 Atwood Ave., near Lake Monona.

On Wednesday, Olbrich staff and architects from Meyer, Scherer, Rockcastle Ltd. of Minneapolis — the firm that designed the Downtown Central Library and Madison Municipal Building renovations — will present the schematic design and give updates on the project.

The architects have also reviewed a 2013 master plan and are recommending more than $13 million in future projects including spaces for the library collection, plant show pavilion, orientation and administration, a Head House that supports all conservatory and greenhouse staff, and gift shop remodeling.

“We’ve filled this space and done a lot with it,” said City Council President Marsha Rummel, 6th District, who represents the site. “It just seems like there’s so much opportunity to provide more education. It’s an opportunity for an even more fun, exciting and beautiful place.”

The need for space

Over time, as Olbrich has become more popular and increased offerings, the need for space has become more acute.

The last major facilities expansion came in the early 1990s with the opening of the Bolz Conservatory and visitors center. Since then, Olbrich has seen a 59 percent increase in annual attendance. Membership households have tripled to 6,250. Education classes have grown from 13 to 242. Library users have nearly quadrupled. Explorer school programs rose from zero to 93. And public special events jumped from eight to 190.

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“We’re more successful then ever in almost any way you measure,” Sladky said.

In 2010, the staff and society board began to explore solutions, with the master plan completed in 2013.

Then, as the society began fundraising, Olbrich waited for a project to become part of the city’s capital budget. In 2014, Mayor Paul Soglin and the City Council put a total of $10 million — half from private fundraising — in the city’s nonbinding, five-year Capital Improvement program for 2017 and 2018.

In the meantime, the space crunch continues, Sladky said. Staff are crammed into main-level office space and must prepare for instruction on carts outside offices or in the small catering kitchen. Children’s programs are taught in the same space rented out for wedding receptions and other private events, limiting weekend offerings for youth and family programs.

The greenhouse has an inefficient layout that wastes space.

Funds to move forward

The city budget for 2017 and Soglin’s proposed budget for 2018 include public and private money to complete design and do the expansion.

The Learning Center includes:

  • 8,500 square feet of space, including flexible-use classrooms that can be used individually with dividers or in combination to form larger learning spaces.
  • Outside learning center space, including dedicated space for staff and class-preparation activities.
  • A garden observation deck.

The Learning Center will have a modern prairie architecture appearance and be constructed of similar materials used in the existing structure, city project manager Randy Wiesner said. The Learning Center, which features stonework and windows, is designed to be as low as possible so it doesn’t obstruct the glassy conservatory,” he said.

The new greenhouse will be more energy efficient and provide rolling plant benches to increase usable floor areas for plant growth and care. It will support plant production for outside gardens and plant shows, the orchid collection, and the tropical collection, Wiesner said

Of the $10 million, $7.4 million is for construction with the remainder for design, planning and project management costs, and buying furniture, fixtures and equipment, Wiesner said.

Design started in earnest in April and will be completed in May 2018, Wiesner said. The project must go through the city’s regular review process, with construction anticipated to start in early September 2018 and completion in early September 2019.

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