A developer might walk away from an estimated $4 million restaurant and banquet hall project in Madison’s University Square if city leaders force dramatic changes to his proposal.
“It’s just not going the way we hoped,” said Waukesha-based developer Scott Acker. “I was warned by everybody about Madison approvals, but I was also surprised by the lack of a warm reception for the project.”
Acker said he will decide this week whether to alter plans for the three-floor Badger Hall of Fame Grill, a restaurant, banquet hall and bar with a 900-person capacity.
When Acker took his proposal to the city’s Alcohol License Review Committee earlier this month, he said, the project sparked a four-hour debate that ended with his request for a one-month delay before the committee votes.
“I don’t know how many times I can say, ‘It’s a 900-person restaurant’ in a four-hour period,” he said, referring to some committee members who were concerned most customers would only visit the restaurant for drinks. “There will be a bar, but this is a place for weddings, meetings, private dining and eating before game day.”
But Tom Landgraf, who is a member of the Alcohol License Review Committee and teaches real estate courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he is more worried about planning for the restaurant, banquet hall and bar than he is concerned with drinking.
“Properly done, 900 people might not be an issue,” he said, “but I just didn’t have enough information.”
Acker said his 33-page business plan for the restaurant took more than five months to complete, but he said committee members wanted changes such as closing alcohol sales at midnight and keeping the kitchen open later to feed students. He also said there was talk of knocking capacity down to 500.
“You can’t limit 34,000 square feet of space to 500 people,” Acker said. “It will look like nobody’s in there.”
The project has supporters. Alderman Bryon Eagon, whose district includes University Square, said he understands the fear a developer will propose one thing and build another, but the city would be foolish to scare away Acker.
“I don’t know whether the city would ever see a better applicant,” Eagon said. “Especially at a time when someone’s willing to make a multimillion-dollar investment in this economy, it would be unwise to say no.
“Taking too much of a hard line against it is just a bad approach.”
Landgraf said he has heard the complaints about Madison’s arduous approvals process, and he understands some people say the city is anti-development.
“I think developers may get a little frustrated when they have to keep coming back to us on the same issue,” he said. “But when you look at national rating organizations, or whoever is putting together these lists of the best places to live, we’re always near the top.
“The basic concept of how a community fits together here works.”
Acker said he wanted to finish his project by January 2010 for an opening in time for the start of UW-Madison’s second semester. Now, he said, plans are suspended and he is unsure whether he will seek a vote at next month’s Alcohol License Review Committee meeting or request another delay.
He said the early resistance might not bode well for future projects he could propose in Madison.
“We’ll see how this project goes,” Acker said.