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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 84.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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A likely reprieve for Garver Feed Mill
Proposals received to stabilize building and address Olbrich Gardens space crunch
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A city staff team says the time is short to rehabilitate the damaged 1905 feed mill.
A city staff team says the time is short to rehabilitate the damaged 1905 feed mill.
Credit:Craig Wilson

The Garver Feed Mill could yet be saved. The city of Madison and Olbrich Botanical Gardens have begun to explore a partnership that would preserve a significant part of the site for a variety of future uses, perhaps even as an arts incubator.

After overcoming a variety of hurdles, including a city referendum, Common Wealth Development pulled out of the planned rehabilitation of the deteriorating feed mill as an arts incubator last May due to fundraising difficulties. Informal talks between the city of Madison Parks Division and Olbrich Botanical Gardens began almost immediately.

Madison is now seeking architects to work with Olbrich on a project to explore ways to meet the gardens' current and future building space needs to better accommodate the public. A second, related proposal would stabilize the core of the Garver Feed Mill for use as a garden support and storage facility by both Olbrich and the Parks Division.

The city recently took the first step by releasing a "request for qualifications" for architects to provide design work and cost estimates to determine both space needs for Olbrich and for using the feed mill as a storage facility. Eighteen proposals were received by the May 25 deadline.

City engineering staff will separately hire a masonry consultant to prepare a preliminary report on work needed to stabilize the building. That will help clarify cost estimates.

Later steps would include opportunities for community input and evaluation of costs and possible funding. The Olbrich Botanical Society and the Parks Division will share in the costs of architectural studies.

Review of design contracts may take as long as three months. An overall timeline is impossible to predict at this point, says Roberta Sladky, director of Olbrich Botanical Gardens, but her ideal completion date is "five years ago."

She is eager to free up as much space as possible in Olbrich's main building.

"I've been here six years, and it's been clear to me that our current visitor facilities are inadequate," she says.

The Garver Feed Mill is part of Olbrich Park. It was built by the United States Sugar Beet Co. in 1905 and James Garver remodeled it as a feed mill in 1929. It was made a Madison historic landmark in 1994.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens is operated as a public-private partnership between the Parks Division and the Olbrich Botanical Society. The feed mill was acquired by the society in 1996, using $700,000 in contributions from private donors and a stewardship grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It was almost immediately deeded to the city.

Since the Botanical Center building and Bolz Conservatory opened in 1991, attendance has increased more than 300% - from 60,000 visitors its first year to approximately 250,000 today. On Mother's Day alone, the facility had 4,000 visitors.

"I know there are people who come into our lobby and never see the outdoor gardens - I've seen it - because the lobby is so crowded and there's not a natural flow," says Sladky. "I just know there are better ways to orient them and better ways for them to find their way through good design. But I don't know what that design is."

Olbrich has no dedicated educational space, and its restrooms do not meet current code. Moving maintenance and storage to the Garver Feed Mill would be a good first step, says Sladky.

"We'd be doing several useful things," she says. "We'd be helping to preserve the building, because it's clear that the neighborhood association wants it, and a lot of other people of course," she says. "And potentially, at some point in the future, it would have another use."

It would also provide some breathing room in the main visitor facility.

"In our current building, in the winter, if we have to repair a piece of snow removal equipment, that takes place in the same space where we're potting plants, where our maintenance staff have desks, where our staff lunch room is, and where we have a ton of stuff stored that can't be exposed to the cold," Sladky says.

Meanwhile the feed mill's needs are perhaps even more urgent. The city's Garver Feed Mill Staff Team, which includes parks and planning personnel, noted in a September report that "There will come a time in the next couple of years at which it will no longer be economical to rehabilitate the building." Structural problems, environmental cleanup and vandalism are just some of the site's continuing problems.

Rehabilitating the entire building to host an arts incubator was estimated to cost $14.1 million in 2010. Rehabilitating just the 13,200-square-foot central core of the massive structure was then estimated to cost $4.2 million, including demolition of the rest.

Using the mill for public space at this point has already been ruled out by Olbrich. "We don't see a safe way to get the public across the [adjacent] bike path and the railway tracks without an incredible amount of additional expenditure," says Sladky.

"We don't even know at this point how big of a campaign we can support [to expand Olbrich at all], how big of a project this will be. One of the things we've asked for is a phasing plan, so that we can prioritize and make decisions."

Meanwhile, she notes, it's too soon to think very far down the road.

"People ask me all the time, 'What is it that you're going to do? I tell them, I don't know, because I'm not an architect and I can't see space the way they can see space," she says. "I just know what our needs are. Our next step is to find someone to guide us through and help us solve our problem and tell us what the best thing to do is."

Mayor Paul Soglin, Ald. Marsha Rummel and the Board of Park Commissioners have voiced their support for the project. Sladky credits the mayor's office and especially Parks Superintendent Kevin Briski for bringing all the necessary players to the table so that the first steps can be taken.

And nothing being discussed precludes different, future uses for the feed mill, Sladky reiterates.

"We're not suggesting that we need to be in that space forever, if a better use is determined," she says. "Knowing the Madison process, that 'better use' may take a long time."

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