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Neighboring pubs at odds over street café concept

Neighboring pubs at odds over street café concept

Update: Council Member Michael Wojcik said Thursday afternoon that he wants the city to reconsider its agreement with Grand Rounds “unless a better solution is presented by staff.” Writing on his Facebook page, Wojcik said some materials given to the council were "incomplete or misleading."

Original story: Tension between next-door neighbors has started spilling out into the street.

A proposed ‘parklet’ involving the City of Rochester and Grand Rounds Brewing Company, located at 4 Third Street Southwest, has caught flak from neighboring business owners who say they did not learn about the project until after it received council approval on Monday.

Christine Stahl, co-owner of The Tap House, said she was never approached about the concept, which allows Grand Rounds to convert three parking spots along Historic Third Street into a privately-run street café.

Business owners along the street, she said, had been shown renderings last year of what a parklet — a sidewalk extension that creates more space for outdoor activity — could look like along Historic Third. At that time, however, Stahl said the project was presented as a public amenity.

“We were under the assumption that all of, not only 3rd Street, but Rochester, would benefit from this PUBLIC project,” Stahl wrote in response to our initial report on the subject. “We were under the impression that all 3rd Street businesses had the opportunity to participate.”

Three other business owners on the street told us they had also been unaware of the proposal from Grand Rounds. While supportive of the concept, all said they were disappointed in the lack of communication.

Tessa Leung, the brewery’s CEO, acknowledged in a phone call Wednesday that her agreement with the city did require her to inform neighbors of the project. Leung said she had only recently found out the plan was going up for a council vote, adding that despite being out of the country for a period, she was able to reach out and speak with several nearby business owners.

Stahl was not one of those neighbors, Leung confirmed, adding that the two adjacent pubs often have “trouble finding common ground.”

HOW WE GOT HERE

In 2018, the Rochester Downtown Alliance began exploring the idea of creating a parklet in the area of The Tap House and Grand Rounds.

The project, however, later stalled due to concerns over cost and liabilities.

Sarah Oslund, interim director of the RDA, said there was a feeling at the time that the idea might be better implemented by a downtown business.

Soon after, Leung, who had experienced the concept in her travels to cities like Vancouver and San Francisco, approached the RDA and the city about moving forward with the project as a public-private partnership.

Oslund said she and her team provided Leung with “some of the research and resources uncovered during the RDA’s preliminary exploration,” including renderings drawn up by CRW archictecture.

From there, Leung said she drafted a proposal for the city.

Under the agreement between the business and city, Grand Rounds is responsible for all costs related to construction, maintenance and insurance. The business has also committed to building portions of the prototype with re-purposed wood from trees torn down due to the emerald ash borer.

“It’s a small business trying to do something unique,” said Leung, noting that she assumes all risk involved in the project. “We don’t know what to expect … but we’re pretty open to how this happens.”

PROTOTYPING FOR THE FUTURE

“The thing I love most about it is doing something that makes us uneasy.”

Those were the words of Council Member Nick Campion. Like many of his colleagues, he voted in support of the city’s agreement with Grand Rounds because of the potential it has to inform future decisions downtown.

He compared the agreement with Grand Rounds to how the city evaluates the use of tax increment financing, noting that the prototype would not come to fruition “but for” the support of a private partner.

Council Member Mark Bilderback, whose ward includes downtown, was also in favor of testing out the new concept.

“We have been trying for a long time to figure out ways to make downtown a more active, a more livable facility,” said Bilderback, adding that the deal with Grand Rounds is not much different than existing agreements that allow restaurants to use sidewalks as patios. (It is worth noting that Bilderback said his support was based on the understanding that all neighbors had been informed of the proposal.)

In response to questions about the private use of public land, Mayor Kim Norton said the agreement with Grand Rounds, which allows for public use outside of business hours, represents “a decent compromise.”

The mayor added that this pilot project will allow the city to try out something new. ”[If] it doesn’t work,” she said, “we can not do it again.”

The on-street addition will be up for a full year. During that time, Leung said it will be her job to work with the city and provide them feedback. Her goal, she said, is to test whether the model can be effective in Rochester.

“I hope it’s a worthwhile effort so others can look at it and have this template, and say ‘we could do that, too,’” said Leung.

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