Bared: Seatless in Charlottesville

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Seventy-degree days in January. Yet, while the heavenly weather ushering in 2005 beckoned citizens outside, those who wanted to bask in spring-like weather on the Downtown Mall found one impediment: no tables and chairs.

When a waiting line wrapped outside of Christian's Pizza on New Year's Eve, the crowd's dining pleasure that balmy evening was hampered by an absence of outdoor furniture. Nor did coffee sippers find a civilized seat outside Mudhouse or Café Cubano. Nor did the regulars at Miller's, who sit out front pretty much year round.

City planning chief Jim Tolbert says clearing off tables during the winter has always been the rule, but the past two years the city experimented by allowing cafes to keep seats outside all year.

"Only half a dozen took advantage of the opportunity," says Tolbert. "Most used the Mall for storage."

Another annoyance to city workers is that the tables are in the way for snow removal. A bare mall allows the city to do tree trimming and power washing.

In June, City Council passed an ordinance requiring all tables and chairs to disappear between December 15 and March 1. If the weather's good and the maintenance finished, tables can come back February 15, says Tolbert.

He claims out that on a surprisingly gorgeous day like, say January 4, restaurants don't have the staff on hand to serve outdoors.

But Tony Jorge might disagree. Since May, he has operated Café Cubano in the former Higher Grounds space.

"I have limited capacity, and I had to turn away business," says Jorge. "There's no question I rely on those tables. When I have customers who can't wait or want to eat outside, it's an inconvenience to my customer."

It's also an inconvenience to his bottom line. Jorge pays over $1,000 to rent space on the mall for outside tables, and he doesn't think it's fair that he can only use it for 10 months of the year. "There's a high overhead on the Downtown Mall."

Quilts Unlimited owner Joan Fenton says she asked City Council to allow tables to stay out three years ago.

"All of us love the Mall because of that ambience– that you can sit down outside," she says. "To not have tables on a 70-degree day..."

Tolbert is not particularly sympathetic to Mall-goers who want to eat lunch outside on a nice winter day. "I can go home and eat on my deck," he says.

For those not fortunate enough to live within walking distance, he suggests, "You can sit on benches or when the amphitheater opens– there will be plenty of outside seating."

"That's a joke," scoffs Fenton about the bench suggestion. "They're uncomfortable, there's no table to put a drink, and they migrate daily so you don't know where they are."

Tolbert relents a bit toward those who don't have a private deck and want to eat outside. "It would have been nice," he admits. "Does that outweigh the convenience and maintenance? It must not be that important because none of the restaurant owners came to the public hearing."

"We were not notified they were voting," counters Liz Coffey, daytime manager at Miller's. "We just got a letter that said all the patio furniture had to be removed."

She had to rent storage space and a truck to move the furniture. And on New Year's Eve, "I'm sure we lost a couple of thousand dollars," she estimates.

Tolbert says that he rarely sees anyone during the winter months using the patio furniture. Fenton disagrees. "It's ridiculous to say it's never used," she says. She says she saw bustling patios at Mono Loco and Oxo on Water Street– two restaurants that don't use city property for their outdoor dining.

Even on days that are freezing, at Miller's, "People will sit under the awning because they want to watch people– even if it's snowing," says Coffey.

The Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville will discuss the lack of tables at its next meeting. "The Mall looks bare," says Association co-chair Bob Stroh. "There's a lot of space on the Mall. I hate to see it empty."

Jorge wonders why there's no provision for nice days when there is no snow.

And Fenton proposes that restaurants make a deposit with the city to go toward snow removal, particularly those with a take-out business like Christian's, Café Cubano and Mudhouse.

And how appealing is it for a so-called world-class city to not offer its denizens a place to sit on nice days? "Look at the grease under some of [the seating areas for] those restaurants," says Tolbert. "I think it's more world class to get them clean."

Boulevardier Matthew Farrell, a Mudhouse regular, has taken to sitting on the sidewalk in front of the coffeehouse since December 15.

"I, of course, don't mind sitting in the dirt," says the bow-tied Farrell. "I was a Marine, and that's where we sit. It's probably good to have a guy in a coat and tie sitting on the ground because it makes the mall rat kids feel more comfortable."

More seriously, he says, "I grant it is annoying they took the tables away. Back before we became a world-class city five or six years ago, the ground was the only place you could sit."


Charlottesville may be the one of the best places to live, but the Downtown Mall isn't the best place to find a table to sit outside on a warm winter day.

PHOTO BY LAUREN BROOKS

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