The controversial tent at the Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar has gotten a new lease on life on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. The tent was re-installed Thursday and the city of Charlottesville has decided to suspend enforcement of new seasonal tent guidelines.
“We have had a good relationship with the city so far and I was appreciative they were willing to listen,” Alex George, the restaurant’s owner, said.
Mary Joy Scala, the city’s preservation and design planner, has been working with George on his pending tent application, the first to be considered under the new guidelines.
On Oct. 16, the city’s Board of Architectural Review told George that he would need to modify his tent design before it would be approved. However, staff temporarily set the BAR’s objections aside the following week.
“Because the [guidelines] were not adopted by City Council until September, the restaurants are being allowed to put up tents for this season without BAR approval, provided they work diligently toward getting a permanent design approved by BAR,” Scala said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
The design guidelines are intended to protect the historic character of the Downtown Mall and West Main Street and to ensure quality development in the city’s entrance corridors, such as Preston Avenue.
Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services, made the decision to find a cooperative solution with local restaurants seeking to install tents for the winter season.
“It was my decision based on previous discussions at council, and I know our City Council wants to work with small businesses,” Tolbert said. “We have more to gain by working with them rather than being the enforcers.”
At the BAR meeting, Scala said that tents at the Horse & Hound, Maya and McGrady’s were in violation of the city’s regulations. Mono Loco’s tent on Water Street is grandfathered and will not require BAR approval.
“We haven’t said any tent is fine,” Tolbert said about the current canopy on the Skybar. “We have said if they continue to work through the process we won’t cite them. I don’t know if the BAR will approve that tent or something entirely new.”
George says he called Charlottesville City Councilor Dave Norris after the BAR meeting.
“I reached out to Dave Norris and we went from there,” George said. “The city listened to our side and how we felt about the tent issue.”
George had the same tent from last year re-installed Thursday.
“This buys us some time so we can work with the BAR to come up with a more appropriate solution,” George said.
Michael Osteen is the BAR’s liaison from the city Planning Commission. He describes himself as one member who has been “more negative” about the current tent designs.
“When it’s covering up, masking an urban space in perpetuity, it needs to be designed appropriately,” Osteen said. “There is a place for a well-designed tent, but an off-the-shelf tent is probably not going to work.”
Osteen said that when George came before the BAR, he also learned of some unexpected challenges related to tents and fire safety regulations.
Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress
“George told us they made an attempt to do a more appropriate design, but at some point a tent becomes an addition [to the building] and it has other requirements for egress and safety,” Osteen said. “We may need to spend some more time getting a better understanding of those issues.”
“I think Jim [Tolbert’s] response is totally appropriate given the circumstances,” said Osteen.
While enjoying a drink under the Skybar’s tent with a friend, city resident Frouzan Piechottka said she didn’t mind the tent’s current design.
“It fits in well with the Downtown Mall,” Piechottka said of the mostly clear plastic canopy. “It’s better than not having anything and it’s about as pretty as tents get.”
That sentiment is shared by local real estate agent Roger Voisinet.
“How did they approve the Pavilion?” Voisinet asked from a vantage point between the two venues. “It boggles the mind. It’s a translucent tent that can be taken down any time.”
Osteen said he wasn’t too concerned about the business implications for one restaurant, should a tent not be permitted.
“People are going to drink, so if they are not drinking outdoors, they will go to the building next door,” Osteen said. “People are not going to stop coming to downtown Charlottesville because the Skybar doesn’t have a tent.”