Wonder Bar In Madison Saved, But At What Cost?

It is always amusing what issue can energize enough people to take action so as to impact the larger issue at hand. This year in Madison the ‘necessity’ of securing the Wonder Bar from demolition caught my attention.

An 18-story development project aimed at housing and commercial interests had been proposed for the site where the Wonder Bar and another drinking establishment in close proximity now exist. The proposal was a smart idea for a city that does like to talk often about the need for more housing, and knowing the added tax base is always required for the needs of our communities.

But then it seemed a number of locals found themselves to be history buffs and demanded that the 1930s Prohibition Roadhouse built by rivals of Al Capone be saved. After a number of meetings and letters to the editor of the local paper, it was decided that the Wonder Bar would be physically moved so to save it.

The cost of such a move would seemingly require a lot of cookie sales from the proponents of saving it. Or should we just expect the developer to bite that cost, too?

Over the 30 years of living in Madison, I have found myself on both sides of development projects. How it impacts those who live near such a proposal and the economic benefit to the city are two of my major concerns. When the Wonder Bar is the central issue, however, the end result is not difficult to discern.

There should have been strong and unbending support for the development proposed by McGrath Property Group. Tepid support does not cut it in this time of economic dips and uncertainty.

So the news this week about the down-sized plans for the project is not in any way surprising.

“The decision was made due to the continuing unprecedented increases in construction costs which was exacerbated by the high costs of relocating the Wonder Bar on site,” McGrath told the State Journal Tuesday evening. “We get routine feedback from our general contractor on pricing as the design evolves. In this case, costs kept trending in the wrong direction.”

The total cost to move the Wonder Bar was over $1 million and added three months to the construction schedule, he said.

“We are still planning to go forward with a project but it will be a lower scale project, likely four-to- five stories of wood frame over two levels of parking, and the Wonder Bar will remain in its current location,” he wrote to city staff.

There are times when developers have put forth in this city ideas that were truly in need of a total transformation. Then there are those projects where the need exists and the economic uptick for Madison can be clearly demonstrated with density development. It is that last point that sums up what could have occurred–and should have been realized on Olin Avenue.

The Wonder Bar should now sharply increase the costs of their drinks so to help with revenue to the city and to make up for what we are losing from a much-limited development project.

And so it goes.

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