Nov. 10 was going to be D-Day for Church Street bar owners. Not only had word circulated that Code Enforcement would no longer allow revelers in the street, but rumor had it the city was going to open Church Street to two-way traffic. Bars like Antigua and Chillers, which regularly fill to capacity and spill over onto Church, feared for their livelihoods.
They enlisted radio stations to voice their opinions to Mayor Buddy Dyer and the city council. On Nov. 8, the bars offered free beer to any protester who would march to City Hall. About 30 showed up. Before the city commission meeting was set to begin Nov. 10, another 30 or so hipsters gathered in the City Hall lobby, ready to battle what they perceived as an effort to gentrify Church Street.
But the protesters had bad information. The city wasn't overhauling Church Street, at least not yet. They were approving the minutes of the Community Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board's Oct. 22 meeting, in which the board recommended converting Church Street into a two-way street. The city won't make that decision official until later this year.
The truth is that bar owners have been exploiting a city loophole for decades, and the city let them get away with it. Spillover crowds have taken over Church Street for as long as anyone can remember. The street itself has been effectively closed at night since 1982, when the city agreed to blockade the road in front of Church Street Station from Garland Avenue to the railroad tracks. That meant there was no traffic from the tracks to Orange Avenue either, and bar owners took advantage of the situation.
In late 1999, the Downtown Development Board, the CRA's sister agency, granted Church Street bars a three-month approval to extend their "sidewalk cafes" into West Church Street. The DDB later granted an extension through June 2000. The city never closed out those special permits and kept issuing renewals.
"It was kind of one of those things that always happened and nobody thought twice about it," says Commissioner Patty Sheehan. "I can't believe none of the other bar owners have complained about it," Sheehan adds. "It allowed them to double their occupancy, or even triple it."
There is still a kink in the city's plans to make Church Street a two-way road: Lou Pearlman. Pearlman and partner Robert Kling have a clause in their agreement with the city to redevelop Church Street Station which stipulates that Church Street will remain closed to traffic at night. The city wants to open Church Street to two-way traffic to connect the other side of the I-4 divide with the traditional downtown core. As Sheehan puts it, "You can't have high-rise residential on a closed street."
But Pearlman's contract is only good if his offices are up and running with 500 employees by Jan. 1. And no one thinks that is going to happen. "If he manages to pull it out," Sheehan says, "it's going to put us in a crappy situation actually. `But` he's not in a position of strength. They can't say we're stupid on this one. We're in the driver's seat."
So if Pearlman doesn't fulfill his contract, Dyer will likely get his open Church Street.
Meanwhile, business owners on West Church just want to know what the hell is going on. "Each time we go to a meeting, it seems the goal posts have been moved," says Brian Mulvaney, who owns property on West Church Street.
"Why doesn't somebody come straight over and say, 'This is what we're going to do'?"