Downtown Mall cafes under review
For most restaurants on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, it’s first come first served when it comes to getting a prized table in an outdoor cafe. It turns out, that’s also the rule for property owners seeking to open a mall cafe space of their own.
For six restaurants, getting there first has meant cafes that range from 25 percent to 69 percent larger than their neighbors.’ City staff members are proposing to grandfather the size of these restaurant cafes in ordinance changes coming before the City Council next month. Some business owners are calling for the city to proceed cautiously and consider creating more cafe opportunities.
Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services, said Tuesday that the current ordinance protects the larger cafes, but his staff wanted to specifically name the restaurants and outline a process for future cafe assignments.
“What we’ve done is lay out some ideas we have for clarifying [the process],” Tolbert said at a question and answer session attended by about 20 mall property owners Tuesday. “Our intent is to go to City Council on February 21st and let them make some decisions.”
In a memo prepared in November, Tolbert outlined the following recommendations:
- Allow space adjacent to buildings, as opposed to in the middle of the mall, to be cafes if they do not encroach on the mall’s fire lane.
- Identify the six large cafes that will be grandfathered from the current size maximum of 800 square feet. The grandfathered cafes range in size from 1,000 square feet to 1,350 square feet and include Miller’s, Blue Light, Zocolo, Sal’s, Hamilton’s and Rapture.
- Specify that sale or closure of the grandfathered restaurants would make their cafe space available again and reduce the size to the current maximum (except for Sal’s and Miller’s, which would have the option to sell to an immediate family member and retain a large cafe).
- Specify a process by which new restaurants can claim available cafe space, and allow them to do so without already having an active restaurant.
Craig Fabio, Charlottesville’s zoning inspector, says five or six building owners have sought cafes over the past three years. While space for new cafes on the pedestrian mall is virtually non-existent, city staff hope the ordinance amendments will guide future decisions and clarify who gets what, and when.
“My answer now is, ‘You can’t have one, we are full,’” Fabio said in an interview.
Fabio added that the only space currently available on the mall is between the Timberlake’s Drug Store and the Five Guys restaurant. New mall cafes are limited to 800 square feet.
Joan Fenton, owner of the building at 114 W. Main St., said she was turned down for a cafe space last year. Fenton’s request sparked the city’s review of the existing ordinance.
In an interview, Fenton said she had a tenant ready to open a new restaurant adjacent to Cinema Taco and the Jefferson Theater, but only if cafe space was available.
“I was told there was no room for Cinema Taco to move down,” Fenton said. “I thought that was quite unreasonable as it devalues my property. The last time the ordinance was redone, nobody said you could keep the cafes for eternity.”
Local real estate and music mogul Coran Capshaw previously secured outdoor cafes in the same block for his Blue Light and Cinema Taco restaurants on the mall. Blue Light was granted a larger cafe in a discretionary decision by former City Manager Gary O’Connell, which Tolbert said was to level the playing field with neighboring Zocolo.
The city manager would be removed from the process under the proposed changes.
“[Fenton’s] suggestion was that we go to the three property owners that had space and give it to her restaurant,” Tolbert said. “She appealed to City Council and council asked us to come back with some ideas.”
“Capshaw has every piece of cafe space on the entire block,” Fenton said. “Until 5:30 p.m. there is not a soul sitting in that space. I have a bad retail block because of those cafes.”
Fenton said the cafes in the block could be shared with other restaurants willing to be open for more hours of the day. She says her experience in the neighboring block, where she owns Quilts Unlimited, shows the benefits that also come to retail stores.
“I am near Bizou, Christian’s Pizza, Café Cubano, and the [Marco & Luca] dumpling place,” Fenton said. “When people are out there in the cafes, the block is vibrant and I have people coming in to the store. The restaurants are a huge draw and the cafes are fabulous.”
“This is a long-term economic issue for the city and it is being treated as a zoning problem,” Fenton added. “It should involve the economic development office.”
Overall, the business owners present at Tuesday’s meeting voiced support for the changes.
George Benford, owner of Siips, which has a cafe in the middle of the mall near the Paramount Theater, encouraged a cooperative effort.
“We need to work together as a community and keep bringing people here downtown,” Benford said. “I think you have made a good step in that direction.”
Tolbert said the City Council will hold a public hearing on the ordinance changes on Feb. 21.
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