Even with their short stature, they have commanded a lot of attention. Last week walls were erected in downtown Mount Dora that made some residents and council members cringe.
The three walls enclosed the public sidewalk in front of Cafe Gianni, significantly increasing its space for outdoor dining while obstructing pedestrians, strollers and wheelchairs from using the sidewalk.
According to city code, property owners are required to get approval for exterior alterations to any buildings more than 50 years old that lie within the historic district. It’s the responsibility of Mount Dora Historic Preservation Board to approve, deny or modify the "Certificate of Appropriateness" for these projects. In this case, the changes to the building, owned by Main Street Leasing, bypassed the Historic Preservation Board.
At its May 31 meeting, members of the Board were frustrated how this happened.
“We live in someplace special. Should the city not embrace our historic preservation code rather than find ways around it?” said Board member Michael Moecker. “Shouldn’t the city be held to the same standard as others?”
In a prepared statement, City Manager Robin Hayes stated the city has been working with the business owner, Gianni Liverotti, for several months and the project was exempt from approvals. Liverotti was unable to be reached for comment.
John Peters, Director of Public Works and the supervisor of the project, said as of today no architectural or engineering plans had been done for the current construction, although the affected area includes ADA compliance issues, cross-slopes, drainage, a lamp post, curbing adjustments, a utility box, and a tree. Such plans are a standard, if costly, expense that Mount Dora homeowners, restaurants and other businesses are required to complete. The City Engineer, Paul Lahr, stated today he had never heard of the project.
Other restaurants downtown have been granted permits to use city property for outdoor dining, but they have been required to use the existing sidewalks with a five-foot clearance for pedestrians in accordance with code 3.5.29. This is the first instance that a public sidewalk has been enclosed for the private use of a business.
“Is it going to set a precedent for other businesses in the area?” asked resident Pamela Bisanti. “I'm concerned. At best this is extremely bad judgement on the part of the city to have given a permit for this work, and at worst it seems to give favoritism to an individual business.”
This isn't the first time modifications at the restaurant have drawn negative attention. Last September a conspicuous platforms were installed to accommodate more tables. The project drew immediate reaction as being unsafe and unsightly. The permit for that project expired, but the deck remained for months despite complaints.
In an informal memo, Peters described the project as a "partnership." The city manager stated the city has been working on this modification for months, however the Historic Preservation Board and members of the City Council knew nothing about the partnership, the project, or why the city is involved in a construction project to benefit a private business.
“My main concern is that the wall went up and it seemed to be a surprise to everyone,” said John Tucker, Mount Dora’s City Councilman representing that district. “I wish myself and other members of the council would have been advised.”
Rather than skirt the City Council when a project is controversial, city staff typically advises the council of such projects. Tucker was left unable to answer questions of concerned residents for four days while he awaited basic answers from staff.
The issue also raised concerns among residents.
"It may be legal, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for that location, because it goes through the public sidewalk,” said Denny Wood, current member of Mount Dora Planning & Zoning Board and past Mount Dora City Councilman. “It’s wrong that this kind of controversial project didn’t go before any advisory boards like the Historic Preservation Board or the Planning & Zoning Board, and especially that it didn’t go before the City Council.”
“My concern is that it’s unsightly and an unsafe obstruction and takes public property for private benefit--of which the residents of Mount Dora get no benefit,” said Barbara Arco, a member of the city’s Community Redevelopment Advisory Committee.
Another resident, Janet Westlake, stated, “I have concerns about handicapped access and that it’s not very accommodating for the general public.”
The city manager stated the project would be ADA compliant upon its completion. The city did not respond to follow-up questions for this article before an extended deadline. The issue will be open for public comments at tomorrow's city council meeting at 6 p.m. at Mount Dora City Hall.
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