ST. PETE BEACH — The city’s first attempt to approve outdoor dining permanently, at the Brass Monkey Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille, was met with roadblocks and divisiveness that sent the request back to the Historic Preservation Board for a vote.
At the April 26 City Commission meeting, Chief Operating Officer Jennifer McMahon explained that in 2015, part of the city’s vision was to allow outdoor dining. However, no action was taken until the onset of the pandemic in 2020, when restaurants had to close. When taverns and restaurants were allowed to partially reopen with temporary outdoor dining, six or seven city establishments applied to use the city’s public right-of-way and parking spaces for “parklets”.
Seeing its popularity with customers, the city then created guidelines and implemented a permanent parklet or outdoor dining program, MacMahon explained. Then, in May 2021, city commissioners approved the program allowing restaurants that had temporary parklet approval to apply for permanent status.
Five applicants applied for permanent outdoor dining, with the Brass Monkey on the 700 block of Gulf Way in Pass-a-Grille being the first, McMahon noted.
She told commissioners in January that the Historic Preservation Board had given its opinion on the Brass Monkey’s parklet application.
Members of the Historic Preservation Board suggested moving a loading area and handicapped space along Gulf Way so it has an ADA-approved sidewalk cut, while containing the parklet and any alcohol consumption inside a fenced area. The board also suggested the deal include the city’s ability to revoke the outdoor dining agreement, if drinking or rowdy problems arise.
Historic Preservation also suggested that the city should get 10% of the revenue collected monthly for these patio tables with a minimum payment of $2,000 per month, with that revenue going towards the city’s Freebee freeride program. Payments would begin 18 months after the date of the agreement to allow the company to recoup its investment in building the park.
However, William Loughery, a member of the Historic Preservation Board, called the January meeting with city staff insufficient “stuffing” because it was merely a topic of discussion.
“We all stayed cold about it. The city made a one-sided argument on this. Of course, they showed us the plan, but we didn’t start a discussion about why we are doing it, ”he told the commissioners. “It was basically just, that’s what we’re going to do, (and) they hadn’t even finished it. They didn’t know how much they were going to charge per month; it was just an open topic of discussion.
Loughery asked that the matter be deferred until Historic Preservation had a chance to intervene. “You can deny our advice, but we have not been able to give you advice,” he said. He accused the staff of giving ‘a brief chat and then they pick and choose what they want to present to you’.
He said there were a lot of negative comments at the Jan. 6 meeting that the city commission was never made aware of. “I said it was a bad idea myself, and it never came to you. Instead, they talk about how they solved some issues. It’s a job on the part of the city,” he said.
Mayor Al Johnson said he saw a lot of comments, especially from Pass-a-Grille Beach condominiums next door. An email from Dave and Judy Smith noted “there are over 30 residential and rental condos in the building that have already been negatively impacted by the parklet. Increased noise, loss of parking spaces and people intoxicated, sometimes threatening, frequently leaving the restaurant with alcoholic beverages, entering our common areas, are an ongoing problem.
Another unit owner, Christine Jones, told city officials “there is no way to contain drunk patrons in the park except by completely blocking off the city sidewalk; it is not closed, the fence is open on the east side.
She added “the condo had to pay and have a locked door installed in front of the entrance to our building to keep drunks and Brass Monkey guests out. We ended up having to do this because a drunk customer had passed out in our atrium on the table…Another time a disgruntled customer came over and threatened an owner with bodily harm…Customers took our tables and our chairs on the street to use and were very upset when asked to return them.
On the other side of the argument, resident Kate Waldron emailed officials: “We appreciated the space where we can bring our 4 year old daughter as well as our dog. My family loved the outdoor space and are convinced it is a great addition to the Pass-A-Grille community.
Another resident, Gennaro DiMola, noted that “due to Covid, a lot of people are still nervous about eating indoors, and with outdoor dining, it makes people much less nervous to go out and enjoy delicious food with their loved ones”.
The owners of Paradise Sweets next to the Brass Monkey, Craig and Beverly Bohnert, said the restaurant’s temporary operation “showed that it will not harm the area, in fact, it will add a new aspect to the environment” .
Stephen Christianson, general manager of the Brass Monkey, told commissioners the restaurant was only open outside from about 4 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. on weekdays and during the day until 8.30 p.m. on weekends . He said staff had removed the TVs from the parklet.
“What we’ve found over the past few years is that people want to be outdoors,” Christianson said. “If they’re waiting for a table, they want to wait outside. Probably two-thirds of our meals are indoors. Everyone wants to be outdoors, so it would really help The Monkey, if we had that extra outdoor dining.
The property also has a balcony for outdoor dining.
City Manager Alex Rey said to compensate for the loss of four parking spaces in front of the Brass Monkey, it was possible to repave Gulf Way and redo some of the spaces on 6th and 5th Avenues with corner parking. . “We can create up to seven spaces. I know creating additional parking spaces on Pass-A-Grille has always been a touchy subject, so we don’t have to do them, but the option is there,” he told the stewards.
Commissioner Mark Grill objected to giving up four parking spaces as “parking is scarce all over the city, we don’t have enough”.
Grill added that not requiring a parking space rental payment for the first 18 months amounted to “a city-funded program.”
“We’re basically funding $36,000 to this particular candidate,” he said.
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski said the city has a long history of working with businesses on 8th Avenue.
“We try to create vibrant communities where you have people sitting outside,” he said. “I think it’s exciting to see that. This creates a large vibrant community. I think it will be an attractive part of 8th Avenue instead of having three or four more cars sitting there.
Commissioner Melinda Pletcher, who represents the District of Pass-a-Grille, said she wants a vote from the Historic Preservation Board.
“Sometimes it’s not the right time for things, and I don’t know in Pass-a-Grille if it’s the right time for that level of use.”
Mayor Al Johnson also wanted a written recommendation from the historic council.
Commissioners voted unanimously to refer the matter to the Historic Preservation Board for a non-binding recommendation on the parklet. The city commission will then take a final vote at a later hearing.