ONARCHITECTURE- Take-out: Mall renovation could shrink cafés

Rapture's manager Mike Rodi said he disliked the idea of reducing everyone's space in the name of fairness. " The priority should not be on fairness, but on making sure that restaurants thrive," he told city planners.

At a public meeting last Friday, things got a little tense between city planners and some Downtown Mall restaurateurs, as a proposal to reduce all outdoor café spaces to 700 square feet came less than two months before the $7.5 million Mall renovation is scheduled to begin. In addition, restaurateurs were told that they would not be allowed to open their outdoor café spaces until the entire project is completed in May.

Neighborhood development chief Jim Tolbert acknowledged that the proposed reduction of café space was the "most controversial" of the proposed changes, but repeatedly reminded the anxious crowd who'd packed the City Space meeting room above Bashir's restaurant that nothing had been decided yet, that the city was still seeking input, and that a final proposal would not be presented to City Council until December. 

That was of little consolation to some, who openly expressed their displeasure and wondered why they had not been told about this proposal sooner.

"You're talking about something that is going to hurt our business," said Eliza Dilello, the Blue Light Grill's general manager. "I rely on my patio business."

One man reminded Tolbert that many of the restaurants that took an early chance on the Mall, and had therefore contributed to its success, would stand to lose much of their outdoor café space under the proposal. 

"To take from the original restaurant owners is grossly unfair," he said, which was followed by a loud round of applause.

Indeed, under the proposed plan, restaurants like Miller's, Sal's, Rapture, Blue Light Grill, Hamiltons', and Zocolo would lose significant outdoor café space. Miller's, which has served as a cultural hub and catalyst for the Mall's growth ever since a certain famous former bartender worked there in the early 1990s, would be particularly hard hit. The iconic outdoor café space, where some might argue the Mall's renaissance began, would lose a third of its existing footprint. In addition, because the approved Mall project calls for unfettered public access to the Mall's fountains, its café space would be moved.

"These are changes that would not only mar the cultural history of Charlottesville," said Miller's manager Anne Harris, "but could also hurt many of the restaurants downtown economically."

However, as Tolbert and zoning administrator Read Brodhead explained, outdoor café spaces had already been officially reduced to 800 square feet several years ago, though Miller's, Sals, Zocolo, Rapture, and Hamilton's were granted exemptions. 

"Ten years ago," said Tolbert, "we were begging cafés to come down here. But now there are just so many of them."

The new proposal was being done in the name of fairness for all the restaurants on the Mall, and to better control the amount of space used by each restaurant, which has had "a tendency to drift" in recent years, according to Brodhead. To that end, new "cornerstones" would be installed around designated café areas to define the space and prevent such drifting. Broadhead also said that all tables, chairs, and equipment associated with each café would need to be approved by the Board of Architectural Review before they could be placed back out on the Mall. 

As for the fountains, Brodhead explained that City Council, after receiving community input, had decided that the public should have unfettered access to them, as was Mall designer Lawrence Halprin's original intention. 

However, as one BAR member reminded planners during a meeting about the café spaces in May, Halprin was also an "old hippie" whose intent was to "preserve the spontaneity of the Mall," which meant allowing it to grow somewhat organically. In earlier public meetings, when planners proposed replacing the haphazard free-standing bollards and chains around cafés with permanent bollard inserts (an idea nixed in favor of the cornerstones), many in the local design community feared it might "institutionalize the café spaces," something they said that Halprin didn't want to happen.

Echoing that spirit, Rapture manager Mike Rodi said he disliked the idea of reducing everyone's space in the name of fairness. "The priority should not be on fairness, but 0n making sure that restaurants thrive," he said.

As others expressed, reducing their seating capacity was no way to thrive.

For example, a representative from Zocolo pointed out that a reduction in their café space, as well as that of Petit Pois, would only serve to hurt their businesses, as there are no other restaurants nearby who use that particular space. 

Still, some merchants in attendance suggested the Mall could benefit from a paring down of café space. Lee Marraccini, who owns Angelo's Jewelry (across from Sal's and Chaps), says the Mall has become "too cluttered," using the fountain in front of his store, which is boxed in by café space on either side, as an example.

Indeed, Sal's café space in the center of the Mall appears particularly large, creating narrow passageways for pedestrians on either side. In addition, Cville Arts manager Amy Melville says that many of her customers complain that there is no place to sit on the Mall, except in a restaurant.

Rodi also called attention to the realities of opening up the fountains to the public, asking Tolbert to consider the kind of folks who tend to congregate around the Central Place fountain. "Cafés kind of control access to the fountains," said Rodi, suggesting that was not necessarily a bad thing.

Others openly joked about the purpose of the fountains. When someone asked if the Mall renovation would include any additional restrooms, one man suggested that people could just go in the fountains.

Later, Tolbert acknowledged the problem of creating more public spaces on the Mall, such as opening up the fountains and adding more public seating, which is also part of the renovation plan, by saying, "Every time we put three benches together we get a homeless shelter."

Though the discussion was civil, the anxiety that Mall restaurateurs and merchants were feeling was palpable.

"We're in the middle of a financial crisis," one man said in frustration, "can't we put this off for a year?"

"Lets face it, it's not going to look nice down here, and now the hotel has stopped," said Dilello, referring to the brick replacement and the Landmark Hotel, which several news reports recently claimed was on hold. At press time, it appears the hotel project is moving forward, despite claims by owner and internet tycoon Halsey Minor that the project would be delayed until new financing could be secured.

"It's going to be tough, but we're going to do everything we can to keep you open," said Tolbert, mentioning the $100,000 the city is spending on marketing and PR efforts to remind people that the Mall will be open for business during the renovation.

As for the Landmark, Tolbert said he "reads the papers just like you" and did not know what was going to happen. Still, it was clear he had thought about it. "If they walk away from it," he said. "We'll make sure they leave it safe."

At one point, Dilello expressed concern about the rats that apparently live around and under the Mall, wondering where they would go when the renovation project began to disturb their habitat. 

Rodi didn't miss beat. 

"They'll replace the customers we'll be losing," he joked.



As a business owner on the Downtown Mall I would like to say that the City has been very up front with us. We have been kept abreast of all changes and even potential changes to the Mall. We were first notified of the possible changes to the size of our cafes quite some time ago. City representatives have made themselves very available to our questions and concerns.

The only restaurant that was among the first to have an outdoor cafe that was mentioned in the article is Miller's. Sal's has been there over twenty years also. Why do these other restaurants mentioned feel they have been grandfathered in?

As an alum who frequently returns to The Hook (football, basketball, lax, any old reason really), I am disappointed that there's a plan to curtail the outside cafe space on the Mall. Although I must admit I am completely unaware of the plan's details, I'm not sure it matters. I can't imagine they're outdoor eating friendly.