After nearly seven hours of public comment and debate, and over strong opposition from some neighbors, members of the Madison Common Council voted early Wednesday morning to approve a controversial biergarten in Olbrich Park.
Council members voted 12-7 to grant a liquor license and operational agreement to BKM Group to run the German-style biergarten in Olbrich Park along the shore of Lake Monona. The establishment, which BKM hopes to open in May, will be open seven days a week serving beer, soft drinks and snacks, and will have a capacity of 240. The vote came in at around 1:45 a.m.
The proposal has been debated for the last several months, and there have been more than a dozen public meetings on the matter. The issue has sharply divided neighbors, particularly in the nearby Eastmorland neighborhood. Residents who are opposed to the project cite concerns about noise, parking and safety.
“This is by far the most controversial project or issue that has happened in the neighborhood,” said Eastmorland Community Association president Kathy Soukup, who spoke in opposition to the project.
Not discussed at Tuesday’s meeting were the potential ethics concerns regarding Ald. Sara Eskrich’s role in using city resources to introduce one of the partner’s of BKM Group — which also includes her husband, Erik Kesting — to city staff and what insider information she might have shared with the group. Eskrich’s role is being investigated, so was off-limits for discussion at the meeting. She also recused herself from voting on the matter. However, a resident has filed a complaint against Eskrich with the city’s Ethics Board.
Jessica Slind, a mother of two who lives near Olbrich Park, spoke in support of the biergarten, saying there’s “plenty of room” in the park to accommodate the facility. A frequent patron of the Memorial Union Terrace, she’s excited about the prospect of having a similar, family-friendly gathering place on the east side of town.
“This would really be an opportunity for our neighborhood to have something that’s enviable,” she said.
City officials were divided on the proposal, with several alders raising concerns about the biergarten’s deviation from city zoning and alcohol policy. Alcohol was banned in Olbrich Park due to problematic behavior, but the ban is conditional, City Attorney Michael May pointed out. Others took issue with the process the city took to bid the project. Last May, when the Madison Parks Division put out a request for developers to propose “placemaking services” at the underused Olbrich Park beach house, there was no opportunity for public input. In addition, the documents included with the request for proposal included a sample agreement stating, “No alcoholic beverages may be sold at the premises.”
“The whole process was just backwards, and that’s what I'm stuck on,” Ald. Marsha Rummel said. “If people really like this idea, I think we should re-bid it.”
Mayor Paul Soglin had not weighed in on the biergarten until the council meeting. But early Wednesday morning, shortly before the council voted, he voiced his disapproval. Soglin said he was “disturbed” by the proposal’s “significant” deviation from a number of city policies. He also questioned whether the biergarten — a private venture in a publicly owned park — would be the best use of city property.
“It’s the people that are the heart of placemaking,” Soglin said. “Do we need alcohol? And do we want it to be city policy to say that alcohol is what is needed for engagement in terms of social interaction?”
Soglin said he declined to inform city council members of his opposition to the biergarten because he had received a “clear message” from the legislative body that its members wanted to tackle the proposal “without [his] interference.”
"You know full well, and it's been repeated by many of you, that when the mayor takes a position, there is a certain group that will immediately vote against it," Soglin said to Ald. Mark Clear, who asked the mayor why he didn’t speak up earlier.
Ald. Matt Phair was visibly upset by Soglin’s words. "That's so disappointing to hear. I mean it's just so disappointing and so not true, and it's just, just garbage," Phair said.
Soglin did not say whether he planned to veto the liquor license or user agreement.
Despite the emotional debate, several alders were optimistic about the project and what it could bring to the community.
“Placemaking is about creating a place where people want to be,” Ald. Tim Gruber said before the vote, arguing that the biergarten will be a public use of a public space. “I don’t think it’s just going to be like a bar — it’s a lot different from that.”
Ald. Larry Palm agreed, urging the council members to embrace change.
“This is an opportunity for us to see what parks can do, how parks can be a part of people’s everyday lives, how people can access and enjoy parks,” he said. “As a community, in order for us to move forward and engage our citizens and create an active community, we have to take those risks at times.”