2013-05-24 / Front Page

Compromise reached in cafe issue

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – For years, the city of South Portland has wrestled with the question of how to design Knightville in a way that would create a vibrant, buzzing, walkable downtown neighborhood center.

That process has included community input, design plans and, more recently, repurposed sidewalks and streetscapes. In March, the vision for the neighborhood continued to take hold with the arrival of a new coffee, ice cream and art shop, abbreviated by the acronym Cia, at 72 Ocean St.

Cia owners Bill and Jeannie Dunnigan said their business has thrived in the two months since opening, and their interactions with customers, residents and city officials have been nothing but positive. But the Dunnigans ran into resistance from upstairs neighbors in the condominium when they proposed adding tables and chairs outdoors, covered by four-foot umbrellas, for customers to sit outside during warm months.

The ordinance in South Portland that addresses city sidewalks is vague as to whether that use is permissible. According to City Manager Jim Gailey, the issue has not previously come up because very few of South Portland’s sidewalks are wide enough to accommodate seating while leaving the required three feet of space that’s stipulated under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Instead of changing the ordinance, staff recommended what Gailey called a “test drive,” a temporary license agreement to allow for outdoor tables and chairs occupying five feet of the eight-foot sidewalk at Cia from May through October.

The issue first came up at a May 13 city council workshop, and then went to a vote at the council’s meeting a week later. Councilors voted 6-1, with Alan Livingston opposed, to approve the license agreement with amendments requiring Cia to restrict outdoor hours from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., limit the seating to three tables and six chairs, and post “no smoking” signs in the area.

Margaret Stenberg and her husband Richard, both residents of 72 Ocean St., attended both the workshop on May 13 and the meeting on May 20 to oppose the outdoor seats.

Stenberg said after the meeting she was pleased with some of the compromises, and emphasized she and her husband both support the vision of the Knightville neighborhood and “want to be good neighbors.” However, Stenberg said she was upset by the lack of notification.

Stenberg said she learned about the discussion from another resident at her morning swim class and she received no official notification before the workshop from the city or from the Dunnigans, who also live in the condo.

In a letter to the council sent before the meeting, Stenberg pointed out that although she and Bill Dunnigan are both members of the condo association’s board of directors, Dunnigan never informed the board about the outdoor seating.

The Stenbergs were joined by a handful of residents at the May 20 meeting who opposed the seating, as well as a few who supported the idea. Condo resident Thomas Marino said conversations on the street below may as well be right outside his door.

Behind the counter of her coffee shop Friday afternoon, May 17, Jeannie Dunnigan served ice cream and chatted with customers as she explained the importance of a few tables and chairs to her establishment.

“As a new business owner, I need all the help I can get. I need people to come to us,” Dunnigan said. “As far as I’m concerned, every restaurant should have outdoor seating.”

South Portland Planning Director Tex Haeuser agreed.

“Outdoor seating of this kind is extremely important for the success of a downtown district, in particular for Knightville, where it’s off the beaten track. A place like Cia, its success is by no means guaranteed. It needs to do every little thing it can to survive,” Haeuser said at the May 13 workshop.

The council voted to approve the license agreement to support the vision of the neighborhood, although Mayor Tom Blake had some reservations about the action.

Blake said when the construction project in Knightville finished, the council agreed to reassess the design in July to find out what worked and what did not. Although he agreed with the temporary agreement, he did not want the council to overreach before that discussion happens.

Livingston, the lone vote against the agreement, said he wanted to support the Dunnigans but was concerned about “human nature” getting in the way of plans. Livingston said customers may rearrange the seating on their own, maybe to make room for a pet, take up more space on the sidewalk and force pedestrians to pass on the street.

“I’m concerned we’re creating a little bit of a monster we shouldn’t be creating,” Livingston said.

Despite the heated debate over what she saw as a relatively harmless expansion outside, Jeannie Dunnigan said Friday she’s thrilled to be in Knightville and expects business to continue to grow as the weather improves.

“Knightville looked like it needed us, and I needed it,” Dunnigan said.

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