Neighborhood café trades parking stalls for patio space

City approval difficult for ZuZu Café’s new outdoor patio

ZuZu Café's seasonal patio (Credit: Anna Asendorf)ZuZu Café's seasonal patio (Credit: Anna Asendorf)

Over the past six years, ZuZu Café’s colorful façade and friendly atmosphere have made it a popular Greenbush neighborhood hangout. This spring, its owners gave its reputation another boost with the conversion of the parking lot into a new outdoor patio.

 In exchange for four parking stalls, the café added a spacious patio that serves as pedestrian and bike-friendly gathering place for families and friends in the neighborhood to enjoy, co-owner Kate Zirbel said.

 The lot is now painted with three winding blue pathways, which lead patrons between umbrella-covered sets of tables and chairs, a mound of pink, orange and purple flowers, and a children’s sandbox on the way to the front door. Yellow bike racks occupy the lot’s dormant driveways.

 “When you go to a café, you don’t go to eat and run away, you come to linger,” she said. “Unlike restaurants, what we are trying to achieve is different—we are trying to create a space for people that is their second living room… we are trying to create a neighborhood.”

 With this goal in mind, Zirbel and co-owner and husband Robert “Bobby” Shapiro began the arduous process of obtaining city approval for the conversion of an off-street parking lot into an outdoor patio area. a process with more difficulties than either owner expected.

 But prior to submitting any plans to the city, the project first needed approval from the neighborhood, including the café’s own Greenbush Neighborhood Association and the Vilas Neighborhood Association across the street. 

 Both associations unanimously agreed to support the new idea and former alderperson Julia Kerr also backed the conversion, Shapiro said.

 By securing neighborhood approval, the plan for an outdoor patio had taken a step further than ever before.

 The patio idea originated over six years ago when Shapiro and Zirbel first bought the property. The parcel previously hosted a Stop & Shop before it was transformed into a colorful neighborhood café, Zirbel said.

ZuZu Cafe's parking lot before conversion (Courtesy of Landgraf Construction)ZuZu Cafe's parking lot before conversion (Courtesy of Landgraf Construction)

 When they proposed converting the off-street parking into a patio or garden space, the city was reluctant to approve and Shapiro and Zirbel dropped the idea for the meantime, Zirbel said.

 It wasn’t until last fall when the café’s manager mentioned replacing the parking lot with a patio that the owners decided to try again.

 The ensuing process to gain city approval for their project became a series of “hoops,” paperwork, and meetings with numerous city agencies before the anticipated outdoor patio became a reality, Shapiro said.

 First, Shapiro submitted a detailed plan, drawings, $550 in fees, and an annual conditional use permit applicationto the City of Madison’s Planning Division for review by the Plan Commission, he said.

 From beginning to end, the ZuZu Café owners would seek approval from a range of city officials and agencies, including neighborhood fire and police chiefs, the Alcohol License Review Committee, Zoning administrators, Traffic Engineering, and others. They needed to gain authorization for the  liquor sales, bike racks,  and parking reduction associated with the project, Shapiro said.

 Following initial approval from these entities, the city then requires projects to resubmit their final plans for last review from overseeing agencies. After ZuZu Café resubmitted materials and fulfilled final requirements, the city issued their final approval for a seasonal patio that would return to off-street parking during the winter months, Shapiro said.

 The process, from submitting the plans in January to receiving final approval in May, took about five months.

 A rather difficult process for a good idea, Shapiro said.

 “There are a lot of hassles and hoop jumping [for approval]… but everybody that I worked with at the city was nice and did their job,” he said.

 Though some may consider the process onerous, Tim Parks from the Plan Commission said the city adopted the process due to concern for outdoor areas’ impact on local neighborhoods.

 When approving permits for outdoor areas at restaurants, the Plan Commission considers factors that may be a detriment to the enjoyment of the neighborhood, such as increased noise, late operating hours and higher traffic levels, he said.

 The commission’s largest concerns with the ZuZu Café’s patio project centered on the plans to serve alcoholic drinks on the patio and the potential disturbances that may cause neighbors, Shapiro said.

 Despite the long process, Shapiro, Zirbel, and surrounding neighbors are happy with the completed new patio.

 Caitlin Seifert, president of the Greenbush Neighborhood Association, said she and many other neighbors were happy to see a more attractive, family-friendly outdoor area replace the bare, asphalt parking lot.

 “The bistro tables are always full. Kids are running around on bikes and playing in a safe area and all the flowers look great,” she said. “It makes the corner look much better.”

 In a mixed neighborhood of families and students, ZuZu Café’s new patio manifests Greenbush neighborhood’s friendly and inviting atmosphere and serves as a place for camaraderie and meeting new people, Zirbel said.

 “It’s just nicer, simple as that,” Shapiro said.