Madison is used to opposition to development projects. But Ald. David Ahrens says something is different about the neighborhood resistance to a proposed biergarten at Olbrich Park.
“The operating assumption is that the fix is in,” says Ahrens, summarizing criticism of the proposal to create a 300-seat beer and food concession at Olbrich beach.
In May, the city issued a request for proposals for “placemaking services” at the Olbrich Park beach house. This fall, two proposals were recommended — the biergarten, to be operated by the BKM Group, and a watercraft rental service from Rutabaga Paddlesports.
The two private companies would rehab the beach house and lease the building; a percentage of sales would go back to the city. Parks commission president David Wallner compared the plan to the deal the city struck with Big Top Productions to revitalize Breese Stevens Field.
But some park neighbors see problems. Jenn Jackson, who lives near Olbrich, says a community meeting Dec. 8 was attended mainly by those opposed to a private developer selling beer in a public park. She’s concerned about handing public green space over to private hands and the “lack of experience” the BKM Group has running an alcohol-related business (the business was formed in June.)
“Putting alcohol in a park sends a message that the only way we can create a community space is by selling alcohol,” says Jackson. “Rather than trying to find something that would get more people to experience the park, the option that we’ve been given is to have more people go there to drink.”
Additionally, Jackson says neighbors were not given an opportunity to offer other “placemaking” ideas that don’t involve alcohol before the request for proposals went out from the city. Wallner says this is the standard process for park projects.
One detail fueling controversy over the project is that Ald. Sara Eskrich’s husband, Erik Kesting, is a partner in the BKM group.
Ald. Ahrens says he only recently learned of Kesting’s involvement. “Should people have a question about that? Yes,” says Ahrens. But, he adds, Eskrich is recusing herself from discussing the project with city officials and voting.
Ahrens is alarmed that more than a dozen people have accused him of “hiding the project” from the public.
“It’s not a done deal by any means,” says Ahrens. “I heard 20 times that this is being railroaded through. I got an email this weekend that said local government is being controlled by special interests. But there have been no votes.”
Ahrens sees the paranoid rhetoric of the presidential election being applied to the routine workings of local government. He calls it “frightening to see how that has saturated civic discussion.”
“What’s troubling is the assumption that there is a conspiracy at the highest level to hide something nefarious,’ says Ahrens. “I mean, c’mon. This is a goddamn biergarten and canoe rental.”
The biergarten still needs to be approved by several city committees as well as the full Common Council. The developer hopes to have the process completed by February.
Jackson says it sure “seems like a done deal” to neighbors who oppose the plan. “There was a feeling of like, ‘Whoa. I didn’t realize this was really going to happen,’” says Jackson. “A lot people didn’t think a city project could take place this quickly. Well, it can when certain people want it to.”