The City Commission Wednesday night denied businessman Joe Walsh’s request to build a two-story, 156-seat restaurant at Mallory Square, killing the project with a 5-2 vote over worries that it would tower over the waterfront tourist spot.
“We need to look at the overall picture: what’s best for the area, the citizens of Key West, the public and our future with tourism,” said Mayor Craig Cates, before the vote.
While city planners and the volunteer Planning Board said otherwise, commissioners were troubled over added parking, traffic and whether the restaurant’s proposed 2,344 square feet of eating and drinking space met the code requirements.
Only City Commissioners Mark Rossi and Tony Yaniz voted for Walsh’s plan.
“At this late date, to tell this guy it’s too big, to me, seems patently unfair,” said Yaniz.
I have not kept up with this situation, but if this redevelopment had come before the City Commission before, that’s when those objections should have been made.
City Commissioner Teri Johnston led the motion to deny.
Walsh, whose restaurants in Key West include Caroline’s, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Mangoes and Fogarty’s, said he would most likely rework the plan and return to Old City Hall.
Until then there are no hard feelings, he said.
“The City Commission has a job to do,” Walsh said after the meeting. “They did their job.”
Cates said he was most concerned over an illustration, brought by attorney Robert Cintron — a longtime opponent of the project — that purportedly showed what the finished project would look.
Cintron also is a long time friend of Key West Conch Fred Salinero, of whom you will read shortly.
“Our whole goal for years now is to have an open area walkway down by the waterfront,” said Cates.
To take a defunct 30-seat pizza parlor and turn it into a “full-blown restaurant” violates the city’s zoning regulations, said Cintron, who argued that Walsh’s place simply would clash with Key West law.
“This is a massive expansion and there is no way you can say it any differently,” Cintron said.
“You have to be a little bit more careful when you’re deciding heady decisions like this.”
I wonder if Cintron made this argument at earlier commission meetings, and at City Planning Board meetings, and when the City Commission awarded Walsh the bid in 2010?
The code allows for 156 seats and 2,344 square feet of dining and always has, said City Planner Don Craig, and that means Walsh isn’t legally required to create new parking spaces.
For years, Key West has kept that rule as an incentive to business owners making a go of it on Duval Street.
Walsh said FEMA guidelines make it nearly impossible to build a one-story building at Mallory Square, and that the 156 seats would be allowed. He said the prior restaurant there had only 30-odd seats because the city charges more than $500 per seat as an “impact fee.”
Walsh’s proposal to demolish the existing abandoned building and replace it with a new restaurant began in 2010 when the commission awarded him the bid.
Well, I rather imagine at that time, the City Commission had a pretty fair picture of what Walsh was going to do there, what general size and height of restaurant he was going to build. The Commission awarded him the bid. Where were their concerns then?
Having fended off a lawsuit by the Westin Key West Resort, Walsh appeared Wednesday night to ask the city to grant a “major development plan” needed to break ground.
The Westin objected to the new eatery going up next-door, tying it up in court until December, when an appellate court upheld Circuit Court Judge David Audlin’s ruling that Walsh’s place wouldn’t violate any coastal control regulations or sit too close to the water.
Westin Resort is right next door, over a short bridge. It has its own upscale restaurant, which serves inside and outside on its pier when weather permits. Westin is owned by the Walsh family, no relation to Joe Walsh. Westin’s pier is one of the three piers along that waterfront where cruise ships dock and disembark passengers. Another pier is Mallory Square, another is the Outer Mole, on the other side of Westin. When cruise ships are docked at Mallory Pier, there is no sunset to watch at the popular “sunset celebration”, which features local street vendors selling a variety of goods, including food, street performers, musicians tarot and psychic readers.
One of the city’s other tenants at Mallory Square made an emotional plea Wednesday night, offended at the idea of his own landlord paving the way for a new restaurant significantly larger than the last business that operated out of the property.
“It’s going to destroy us and I want you to think of that,” said Fred Salinero, a partner in El Meson de Pepe’s that has succeeded as the square’s sole restaurant for 16 years, and pays the city $372,000 each year in rent alone.
“We’ve got to sell a hell of a lot of rice and beans to make that money,” said Salinero. “Now you’re talking about putting another restaurant there? [Walsh] has got Red Fish, Blue Fish we’re competing with.”
Salinero and Cintron go back a long ways. Cintron practices law with Hugh Morgan, and until he was disbarred, Jim Hendrick practiced in that law firm. I ate lots of Friday lunches with them at various eateries in Key West, including Salinero’s on Mallory Square. Wouldn’t surprise me, if Cintron and Salerino consulted Hendrick about this “case”. Wouldn’t surprise me, if Salerino didn’t pay both Cintron and Hendrick for their advice, and for Cintron’s appearance at the commission meeting last night. Maybe not in money, but in a favor owed.
Yaniz objected to competition among businesses factoring into the panel’s decision.
“We’re talking about creating an antitrust situation,” said Yaniz.
Yaniz is dead on the money, this is a deja vue Duck Tours case, wherein the City Commission drove Duck Tours out of business to protect Historic Tours of America/Ed Swift’s conch trains and trolleys from business competition, which eventually led to the city paying out about $8,000,000 to Duck Tours, plus the city’s own legal fees and staff time.
At that point, Cates asked City Attorney Shawn Smith for an opinion.
Wise move by the mayor.
“Your job is to focus on land use regulation,” Smith immediately replied. “I would avoid any discussion with respect to favoring one business over another.”
If we don’t talk about the elephant, then it ain’t there. Well, Shawn, they already talked about the elephant, it’s in plain view in the public record for any judge and jury to read later, if Walsh ends up suing the city. Westin on one side, Salerino on another side, not wanting Walsh competing with them. City Planner Craig saying the city’s ordinance and rules allow the restaurant. The bid to Walsh was let to Walsh in 2010, knowing he would seriously expand the seating from what the pizza parlor had. What do you think a jury would do with that, Shawn, and with your recorded legal advice to Mayor Cates? Obviously you are thinking anti-trust, Shawn, and that is why you told them to stop talking about business competition. A first semester law student would be thinking anti-trust. Of course this is about siding with the Westin and Salerino; all the rest is hocus pocus. This is not about quality of life, or pretty, given the city does not object to, but warmly welcomes skyscraper cruise ships at Mallory Pier.
Mallory Pier quality of life sun block
New fees for HARC
Without comment, the commission approved the Planning Department’s request to begin charging fees on applications made to the Historic Architectural Review Commission, and raising some current fees on other project applications.
City staff isn’t fairly compensated for the growing workload that HARC approvals require, said Craig. The fee schedule hasn’t changed since 2008.
Fees for construction work taking place in the city’s historic district will be $25 for an inspection, $50 for a minor improvement such as changing a window or fencing, and $100 to build a new house.
The number of HARC applications processed by the city has jumped by 37 percent over the past three years, according to an in-house review.
The new fees could generate $50,000 in this fiscal year alone, and $100,000 in a complete fiscal year, according to Craig.
Reasonable administrative fees are okay, but I imagine that is sort of how the Tree Commission started out, and now it’s a full-blown city RICO operation, gouging private property owners at every opportunity. Knowing the way the city operates, it won’t suprise me to see HARC become another city RICO operation.