University Square Restaurant Proposal

At a recent Alcohol License Review Committee meeting there was a request for an alcohol beverage license for a new establishment hoping to move into the University Square building at 702 W Johnson, which lies in my district.  People may be familiar with the space, as a previous alcohol license was approved for the ‘Field Pass’ in the same location some time ago.

That Field Pass project has since not worked, mainly because of financial reasons, and the space is currently sits about half built.  The previous tenant began building the space with a two story design that has some half and full walls, fixtures, floors poured, plumbing, electrical, etc… built into the space at the present. Costs to remove these already built area are estimated around $750,000 to $1 million, and like I said, that is just to remove everything and start over. Pretty daunting eh? Especially with the economy these days, it didn’t seem likely anyone would be able or willing to make a multi-million dollar investment in that space, hence it’s vacancy since the building’s completion about a year ago.

Enter the team of Scott Acker, owner of the Quaker Steak and Lube in Middleton, and partners Greg Rice, owner of University Square, and Conrad Arnold, a manager at the Lube and owner of the Opis Lounge in downtown Madison. This team came up with a concept that allowed use of the existing built-in parts of the space as well as added their own creative vision for how they felt the space could better be utilized. This project would be about a $4 million dollar infusion into the downtown.

The ALRC questioned and debated this application for around 4 hours (yes I was there for all of it and so was the ASM representative and my former opponent-turned-colleague, Mark Woulf. Mark sits on the ALRC as the newly formed student representative *thanks Eli* and is a non-voting member. As an Alder, I have the privilege to sit on any board or committee as a defacto non-voting member ).  After lengthy and colorful discussions, the ALRC voted to refer the application until the next meeting in September. After multiple meetings with the applicants, walking through the space, talking with those in opposition and hearing from those in support, I want to give my take on the project through this post.

The design of the 702 W Johnson proposal centers around a Wisconsin Badger sports-themed restaurant, think of an ESPN zone meets a Dave and Busters, and is has three main components: First, the first floor, with Wisconsin sports memorabilia,  state-of-the-art interactive games, giant plasma screens, and seating for 450 (their tentative capacity requested for the main floor). Second, a bit more upscale restaurant (not too upscale tho, highest priced item on the menu around $24) on the second floor with tables and chairs for 150 (their tentative projected capacity for this space). Third, a 300 person capacity banquet room area that is also able to be broken down into three 100 person rooms.  (note: the Field Pass design was pretty much one big restaurant/bar with some game area and had a capacity of 550) There are also some ideas floating around of turning some of this space into a bowling alley or some similar mixed use game space.

These three areas have a combined tentative total of a 900 person capacity.  Sound pretty big? Sure is. Sound scary or unsafe? To some it sure does.  That being said, here are some reasons why I support their alcohol license application and reasons why I fully support the development of this restaurant:

  • This is the exact kind of development we want in our downtown/campus community. The city has said, through the density plan passed before my time on the Council, that we don’t want new bars in a certain area of the downtown which this project is in. I have never been a fan of this but ok, lets work with what we have. The project designed in the U Square space is not a bar, it is a restaurant before all else. Will it serve alcohol? Yes, but in order to receive the alcohol license, the operation has to follow the percentage of food vs. alcohol sales that requires more food than booze. I really think that what will draw patrons to this space will be atmosphere and games first, food second, and alcohol third. There are plenty of other places to grab a drink but not too many great Badger sports places to watch a game, grab some food, and hang out with people of all ages. This is a true multidimensional, mixed-use space that we want in the future of our campus and downtown area. This restaurant will be a destination, attracting people to stay in the downtown, infusing more customers into area businesses and even other restaurants and bars.
  • Speaking of all ages, this restaurant will be one of the few places in the campus area for people of all ages to stick around downtown after UW activities and other events, like after Kohl Center games, football games, theater performances, concerts, etc… So many families skip town right after these events because there are not many places they see as “friendly” to grab some food or drink before heading home. Are there some? Sure are. But not many that could match the atmosphere and interactive uses as this U Square plan.
  • This restaurant would provide a safe and fun place for the thousands of 18-20 year olds in the campus area to hang out, especially late night. 18-20 year old students need options. Those in that age range have severely limited options if they want to hang out with friends in a social atmosphere, with many choosing behind the closed doors of dorm rooms and in the crowed apartments or basements in off campus houses or apartments. These are not the safest places, especially when this restaurant could provide a social place for them to be with those 21+, obviously not drinking, but in a fun, interactive place they are in the open, with friends, under the supervision of staff and peers. Campus and the city should be thinking of more ways to get kids out from behind closed doors and into the open, because right now, most of late night entertainment is dominated only for the 21+ crowd.  How nice would it be for freshmen in the dorms to walk across the street at later that 9pm, which is the normal time for bars to kick out those under 21, and play interactive golf or hockey, throw a few games of bowling, or just socialize with their friends of all ages in a fun, Badger sports atmosphere!
  • On capacity, especially late night capacity. Yes there are a number of restaurants and bars in the downtown and all of them combined have a large capacity. However, how many of these places allow 18-20 year olds in past 9pm? How many attract families after events in the campus area? Close to none. I agree with ALRC members that had concerns about capacity that defined conditions are needed to make sure there wont be 900 people on the street at bar time. But when you look at what this place really is, not just what it looks like on the surface, those concerns begin to be addressed. 1. The main sports themed floor has a proposed capacity of 450. This space would be the main all-ages area and therefore would not be 100% people drinking until bar time because of the ability of 18-20 year olds hanging out there late night, watching a game, playing games, or grabbing some food. Furthermore, part of this space would be open past bar time, allowing patrons to grab late night food or water/sodas, significantly reducing the problems we have seen when everyone is kicked out at bar time and there are hundreds of people on the sidewalk at once, plus add having a number of them being inebriated and you have even more issues. The applicants even agreed to stop serving alcohol earlier than required by law, which has the added benefit of clearing out those who are only looking for that last drink or two to put them over the top and keeps those in the space who are looking to hang out or grab some food on their way out. Finally, this space has something like only 30 bar stools on the whole level, with seating for the whole capacity of 450. Know what that means? Almost non-existent vertical drinking space and service at tables by servers. How many places downtown guarantee a place to sit?! Plus, having a server take food and drink orders adds to the safety of those drinking with another pair of eyes regulating people’s intake of alcohol. 2. The fine dining area, with a proposed capacity of 150. This space has 6 bar stools and the rest are table settings, again serviced by servers.  This space would not occupy a full 150 people drinking until bar time and therfore reduces the number of people drinking late night. I agree with ALRC members that the capacity of this area needs to be defined in a license condition as to when time this area will be open until. If the applicants can define in a condition that this area will not be open past say 12 or 12:30pm or something, I think those with capactiy concerns will be more comfortable, as will I. 3. The final area that is of now slotted as banquet space with a proposed capacity of 300. Like the fine dining area, this space should have defined capacity related to time, reducing the late night capacity. Say the fine dining will be open at the latest until 12pm and say they are at 50% capacity at midnight and therefore have 75 people that have to leave. Even if they all want to go down to the main level, they cannot if that level’s capacity is full, and if its not full, their 75 would be added to the count downstairs and therefore not exceed their 450 capacity. If the latest the banquet space is open is 1am, they have to follow the same rules. With ideas of turning that space into a possible bowling alley, that naturally would reduce that space’s capacity. THEREFORE, the total capacity at bar time, 1:30pm on Sunday through Thursday and 2am Friday and Saturday, would be the 450 from the main floor. That, considering the Field Pass was approved with 550 and had limited to no similar conditions, and the fact that the whole 450 does not have to be out on the sidewalk a minute after bar time, like most places, because of their late night food service till 3am or so, would help the trickle out method that would reduce crowds. Not to open up Pandora’s box, but there are bars in the area, just bars serving only alcohol, that have similar or even a larger capacity than 450 that kick their whole capacity out at bar time, so arguments that a place with less capacity than those, a place that also serves food until 3pm, is less safe doesn’t fully fit this case.
  • The main first floor area will serve breakfast starting at 6am, take out or dine-in lunches, and food until 3am.  Also, the banquet area will not severe alcohol without the accompaniment of food.
  • The applicants estimated the project will create 225 new jobs in the downtown and campus community, many of which will be part-time jobs for students.

Overall, there are absolutely details to be worked out to address the many serious concerns and issues that this scale of a project entails. Again, I strongly feel this is the kind of place we want as a campus and downtown community and also the kind of place we should be encouraging as a city. I am going to try to meet with the applicants to discuss their plans and possible conditions, continue to talk with those who have concerns, and am sure I’ll continue to hear from those that are flat out opposed to the project. I want this project to happen and am open to hearing creative ideas as to how we can make this opportunity work.

If you want let me know what you think, shoot me and email at district8@cityofmadison.com or call me at 608-335-5091. Again, if you feel strongly on either side of the project, the Alcohol License Review Committee is going to re-take-up the application at their September meeting, to which I will definitely publicize and link to once I know the details.

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