Shrink scrap: City reverses plan to squeeze Mall cafÃ?Â© spaces
Downtown Mall restaurant owners, especially those with over-sized patio spaces–Miller's, Rapture, Zocolo, Blue Light Grill, Sal's and the Nook–got a few early Christmas presents from city council recently. On Friday, December 5 Charlottesville mayor Dave Norris announced that the proposal to reduce the outdoor patio spaces for all restaurants on the Mall to 700-square feet, following the completion of the $7.5 Mall re-bricking project in May, would be scrapped.
“We got an earful from merchants and rightfully so,” said Norris. “The way the caf©s were set up this year is the way they will be allowed to set them up next year.”
At a November 14 meeting with city planning staff, restaurant owners, managers, and employees were noticeably upset about the last minute changes, which also included moving patio spaces away from the fountains and not allowing caf©s to open until the entire project was completed in May.
Indeed, over two dozen Mall mavens, employees, and merchants, including Miller's, Rapture, Gravity Lounge, Alakazam Toys & Gifts, Oyster House Antiques, and the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, were so upset that they drafted a letter calling for a halt to the entire Mall project, and collected over 1,000 signatures on a petition asking that the size of patio space remain the same.
Norris' announcement means that patio spaces at places like Miller’s, Rapture, and Sal’s, and Blue Light, which far exceed the current 800-square foot maximum, will be allowed to remain that way.
In addition, Norris said the plans to move patio spaces away from fountains and restrict when they could open would also be scrapped.
“I agree with those merchants who say that’s ridiculous and that’s been scrapped,” says Norris. ” Once your portion of the Mall is finished, and once caf© season is open you can have your caf©s.”
As an added measure, Norris said the city was waiving all caf© fees for the 2009 season.
“We’re eliminating it just to ease the load merchants are facing,” he says.
However, the largesse appears to have rubbed some business owners the wrong way.
"As a downtown merchant, will they waive my business license fee? " asks Dave Taylor, owner of Read It Again, Sam bookstore, in a comment on the Hook's news blog. " This seems to be another example of city council caving in because of a few complaints and not having the guts to stand up to a few vocal cafe owners."
"We get criticized for staff proposals that would make life difficult for downtown cafes, now we get criticized for staff proposals that would lessen the sting for downtown cafes," chuckles Norris. "We just can't win."
But Norris says he has a simple response to folks like Mr. Taylor. Unlike the indoor merchants who will be inconvenienced by the re-bricking project, Norris explains that many of the outdoor cafes will actually be temporarily shut down by the re-bricking project. "Besides which, the cafe operators will still have to pay all the other fees and taxes that they'd regularly pay and that other merchants pay," says Norris, "so it's not like they're getting a big sweetheart deal here."
But as Taylor points out, a majority of Mall businesses supported the proposed changes, and support the Mall renovation in general (a contention that Norris agrees with), so why should a few squeaky wheels get the grease?
"Does Siips get screwed because Sal's was here first, or is there a way to come up with fair rules for everyone?" asks Taylor, pointing out that newcomer Siips has a fraction of the patio space that Sal's does.
Indeed, city planners came up with the proposal in an effort to create fair rules for everyone. However, many at the November 14 meeting argued that it was as equally unfair, if not more so, to penalize those restaurants, such as Sal's and Miller's, who had taken the early risk of setting up on the Mall.
"Once staff heard from some of the merchants who would be most affected by the proposed changes, they went back to the drawing board," says Norris, who says he voiced support for the proposals' opponents. " I commend them for their responsiveness."
"The change in the patio use is a good thing," says Brandon Collins, a musician and Mall maven who helped draft the letter calling for a halt to the Mall project," but we're still calling for an end to the re-bricking."
Collins, and the merchants and individuals who have been endorsing the letter, say the timing of the project in such a harsh economic climate could hurt businesses. They say the $7.5 million budget could be more wisely spent, on such things as affordable housing, and that only a fraction of that would be needed to repair and maintain the existing brick work.
Indeed, that's a refrain that has been heard repeatedly during the planning process, but one that has never seriously been considered.
Meanwhile, the Mall’s largest art gallery, Sage Moon Galley, announced it was folding last week amidst concerns about the economy, which now leaves three large commercial spaces vacant on the east end of the Mall–the Sage Moon space, the old A&N/Obama headquarters space, and the space formerly occupied by Order from Horder, which closed in May. Add to that the recent announcement that the country has been in a recession since last December, and the current financial woes of the Landmark Hotel project, and the letter writers might have a point.
But Norris thinks there's an important point missing in the recent reporting on the re-bricking, specifically this latest effort to stop it, which he thinks is being advanced by a very small minority.
"It was and is the downtown business community that has pushed hardest for the re-bricking project all along," Norris explains. "Not city staff, not city council, but the downtown merchants and other downtown business owners. They did so knowing full well that there would be a temporary sting, based on their firm conviction that the Mall needed an overhaul and that the long-term gain would far outweigh the short-term pain."
Norris adds that the downtown business community also pushed hard to get the project done all at once, rather than over the course of four years, as was originally planned, and during the winter season when business activity downtown was slowest.
"I honestly think that this [the letter calling for a halt to the re-bricking] has more to do with frustrations about the caf© spaces than about the re-bricking itself," says Norris.
Of course, if it weren't for a vocal minority, we might not be having our current discussion on the area's water supply, or the Mall project, and it appears a vocal minority convinced council to scrap the proposal to reduce restaurant patio spaces. Clearly, majority opinion appears to have no monopoly on the right course of action for government to take.
At council's next meeting on December 15, the minority calling for a halt to the Mall re-bricking project will have one last chance to be heard, though Collins admits that Norris may be right.
"Realistically, I believe it will be hard to get a lot of folks to the council meeting on the 15th," says Collins, admitting that many businesses that signed the letter did so to protest the reduction of patio space, " but some folks are still planning to come out."
–last updated 12:25pm, December 9