After a lengthy debate at Monday night’s regular meeting, the Madison City Council unanimously adopted a revised text amendment allowing stand-alone event facilities in downtown Madison.
Stand-alone event facilities will not be a permitted use in the city’s Commercial 1 and Commercial 3 zones downtown. The original text amendment also proposed stand-alone event facilities being allowed as a conditional use in Professional 2, which is the donut area encircling downtown that acts as a buffer between residential neighborhoods and the arts and entertainment district, but council members could not agree and ended up striking it altogether from the text amendment.
Currently, special events are allowed downtown in established businesses that host events as an accessory activity--such as the James Madison Inn, Amici’s Italian Cafe, The Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, and some of the churches.
“There is already an event-element to downtown,” said Bryce Jaeck, Madison city planner to the Madison Mayor and City Council Monday evening. “The Downtown Arts and Entertainment overlay district and event facilities are a natural fit for that. We already have Town Park and other businesses hosting events as a side accessory.”
Under the new text amendment, a full-time event facility will be able to open up in the approved zones downtown to host parties, weddings, anniversary dinners, and other special events.
But the text amendment received some push back with the Historic Madison Coalition issuing a letter to the city raising concerns about allowing stand-alone event facilities downtown. The letter detailed concerns about the sale of alcohol, overcrowded parking, noise, and a party atmosphere spilling over into residential areas of the city.
Elizabeth Bell, a member of the Historic Madison Coalition, also made a public comment asking the council to deny the text amendment or to at least table it. She alleged that city staff did not advertise enough notice to even hold a public hearing and a vote, but city staff and City Attorney Jim Carter insisted all the legal requirements were met.
Bell, who made her comment via Zoom on Monday night, was most concerned about alcohol being permitted at event facilities and complained the text amendment did not regulate alcohol sales whatsoever.
“We don’t need to play cat and mouse about this,” said Bell. “This is a commercial enterprise for selling alcohol, I don’t understand why we aren’t just saying it.”
But city officials, including City Manager David Nunn, Clerk Ashley Hawk and City Planning Director Monica Callahan explained that no land-use text amendment regulates alcohol sales. There is a separate alcohol ordinance that all businesses are subject to, including newly-allowed event facilities.
“This will not create a bar, a pub, a speakeasy, or anything like that,” said Nunn. “That is not what this text amendment does,” said Nunn.
The exchange between Bell and city officials became heated to the point of Bell being muted after the public comment portion of the meeting was closed. There was also some technical difficulties with some listeners tuning in complaining they could not hear what was being discussed during the meeting.
Councilman Eric Joyce raised several concerns of his own about the new text amendment allowing stand-alone event facilities, including parking and vague language in the text amendment. Joyce was also the one to push to strike event facilities being allowed in the P2 district.
“Flat out, I will not vote for that,” said Joyce.
Joyce was concerned that the vague wording outlining the timing of event facilities to be “mostly” and “primarily” in the evening and on weekends outside of regular business hours was insufficient.
“If an event facility has 49 events during the day throughout the year and then holds 51 at night, then they’ve met their obligation,” said Joyce, who worried how events during the weekdays could exacerbate the already limited parking downtown.
Councilman Ed Latham spoke in support of the event facility.
“Madison is becoming an event center where people come get married or have family reunions. It is going to bring more business to the downtown, and won’t take away from the restaurants, if anything they will probably go to local restaurants to cater. It could boost their businesses,” said Latham.
“Madison has been good at adapting as a lot of cities are trying to pump a little more life back into downtowns,” said Nunn.
After revising the text amendment to remove P2, the council voted unanimously to allow event facilities in the C1 and C3 districts of the city. Joyce stressed the need to address downtown parking in the near future.
“We need a long-term parking solution,” said Joyce. It’s been bedeviling us for a long long time, but we need to do something.”
“It’s a good problem to have,” said Councilwoman Carrie Peters Reid. “It means people are coming here.”