Arfan Mithu wants to make one thing perfectly clear: "We are not trying to ruin the neighborhood. We're trying to enhance it." It's been a surprisingly tough case to make.
Together with partner Shariff Syed, Mithu hopes to open a Pakistani restaurant in the former Madison Community Health Center, 1133 Williamson St. Syed, who bought the building two years back, previously teamed with Mithu on the excellent Madison Masala restaurant on State Street.
In response to neighborhood concerns, the pair dropped plans for a bar that would remain open past restaurant hours. And they met twice with the Marquette Neighborhood Association Board - thinking, as Mithu put it, "We need for them to give their blessing."
That's why Mithu and Syed were crestfallen to get a letter earlier this month saying that the board had voted to oppose the project: "We think your [restaurant] concept...is exciting but oppose it being located in the middle of a primarily residential block." A neighborhood plan adopted by the Common Council in 2004 discourages such uses.
What the board neglected to tell Mithu and Syed, however, is that what it wants doesn't much matter. The building, like much of the properties on Willy Street, is zoned Commercial 2, meaning a restaurant/bar is a permitted use.
Board president Marsha Rummel acknowledges this but says, "I'm pretty sure the city wants to know what we think." District Ald. Judy Olson, who agrees the restaurant is a "bad idea" and worries about the precedent of allowing it, says the liquor license and parking variance do require public approval.
But Joel Plant, staff to the city's Alcohol License Review Board, says only issues of "public health, safety and welfare" are considered: "If there are other [objections] - if it's land use or if it's zoning - that wouldn't normally fall under the ALRC's purview."
And city zoning administrator Matt Tucker says getting a parking variance for a business of the size Mithu and Syed intend - with seating for 28 to 35 people - is "pretty much a slam dunk." The city's planning director could make the call on his own, with the restaurant's proximity to bike paths and bus service weighing in favor of approval.
Rummel doesn't know if anyone will try to block the project but feels the episode underscores the need for zoning changes. Olson agrees, saying what's at stake is "the future of Williamson Street and the preservation of its unique character."
Now that he knows the neighborhood can't interfere, Syed is proceeding with his plans. But it pains him to be at odds with his neighbors: "I rather be working with them, not against them." As a wise man once said, you can't always get what you want.