Making room for sidewalk cafes snags Main Street project

November 14, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

Annapolis restaurateur Jerry Hardesty steps on one of his best business opportunities every day; the porch of the Middleton Tavern on Market Space.

Customers are willing to stand for an hour for the opportunity to eat and drink at one of Mr. Hardesty's 40 outdoor tables near the City Dock. And Mr. Hardesty, 52, argues that other downtown restaurants should be able to set up their own sidewalk cafes.

The potential for sidewalk cafes has been near the center of the battle over the reconstruction of Main Street. Plans for the $5 million face lift call for sidewalks wide enough to accommodate cafes at the foot of the street.

Work is to start in January, but the plan has not received final approval from the city's Historic District Commission, partly because of the argument over the sidewalks.

Downtown residents complain that the plan would turn the picturesque street into an overrun pedestrian mall and that the cafes would contribute to noise, trash and aggravation.

But restaurant owners say the reconstruction plan would make Main Street a natural place for dining alfresco.

Mr. Hardesty argued last week that he should have tables on the narrow spit of concrete outside his newest acquisition, O'Brien's Oyster Bar & Restaurant on Main Street.

"Even if there were only room for four tables, I'd do it," he says. "And those tables would stay very busy."

Craig Purcell, an Annapolis architect and one-time local political candidate, has collected more than 340 signatures from residents, restaurant owners and barkeepers in favor of outdoor dining, hoping to jump-start a bill now before the city council that would allow sidewalk cafes downtown.

"Sidewalk cafes are important to the life of the city," Mr. Purcell said. At sidewalk cafes, people do more than just eat burgers and fries amid the elements, he said. They have a communal experience.

"The most humane of cities are always full of cafes," the petition states, quoting urban designer Christopher Alexander. "People feel safe enough to relax, nod at each other, perhaps even to meet."

But residents of the historic district are skeptical.

They ask what's humane about more trash in the street and noisy night-time gatherings near residential neighborhoods.

"Effluent, sea gulls poopin' on peoples' heads, all for one or two tables where people can eat," sniffed a critical Dr. Paul Elder, who sits on the board of the Ward 1 Residents Association. "On Main Street, I think it's a bad thing to do. I think it's the wrong thing to do."

Sidewalk cafes would take valuable parking space away from downtown merchants, he contended, hurting their businesses and forcing tourists into the precious few parking spots in residential areas.

"Sidewalk cafes certainly shouldn't be approved at the expense of the peace and tranquillity of the city's residential neighborhoods," said Dr. Elder, who cherishes his 1918 home, which recently was featured on a historic district house tour.

But restaurant owners such as Kathy and Mike Greentree, who own Greentree's on Main Street, argue that sidewalk cafes would exist as much for the local people as the tourists.

"The basis of our business during the week are other local business owners and downtown residents," Ms. Greentree said from behind the counter of her ice cream and coffee shop.

Outdoor cafes would enhance the city's social network, she said. Ms. Greentree said she and her old friends from the Annapolis High School class of 1963 miss the city's homey feel.

But she also acknowledged sidewalk cafes would boost her 2-year-old business considerably and said the new outdoor business could bring to Annapolis the "mini-Rodeo Drive" she and her husband recently visited in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

But the Greentrees may have to wait awhile before they can serve their pink bubble gum ice cream and "Big Blitz" pie on the street. Sidewalk cafes are not universally loved -- not even by tourists, who are presumed to be the biggest users of the cafes.

"There's just no room for sidewalk cafes downtown," said Bob Adams, 58, a Silver Spring salesman who with his wife has toured Annapolis twice a year for the last 25 years.

"It's getting too crowded now as it is," he said. "I do think this is a pedestrian town, but it's just too busy."

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