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It's a typical Thursday post-work comedown outside the 903 Mills Market. An older couple quietly picks at their sandwiches and sips their sangrias, a guy and his gal pal chatter over Bud Lights, a huddle of hipsters with new beer guts lean back in their chairs and smile. "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you go 'til it's gone," Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" lilts from the speakers.

A boy lets go of his mother's hand and bends over to pick up a penny. "You're gonna have good luck all day!" she says, looking for a table. "This place is so busy these days."

These are scenes ripped right out of a New Urbanist's wish book: a neighborhood gathering place, a haven for ideas and camaraderie away from both work and home. It's a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the "third place," a term coined by Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, and author of The Great Good Place and Celebrating the Third Place.

"The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres," he writes in The Great Good Place. "Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends."

Oldenburg's list of the 13 functions of that "third place" run from neighborhood unification to the easing of retirement alienation, each playing into a concept of social support. Many third places are, in fact, watering holes, places Oldenburg laments the loss of. "We're in the third Prohibition movement when it comes to these things," he says.

Nick Massoni, the owner of 903 Mills, has received several copies of Oldenburg's books from his clientele. He's also received his share of hassles from the city. When he opened the business in September 2003, a glitch in the state computer system led him to believe that the property — a building that has been everything from a dry cleaning establishment to a convenience store since being built in 1920 — was properly zoned for on-site consumption of alcohol. Then the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco raided it on a complaint over a year later and shut down his alcohol sales. Massoni set to making things right, applying to the city for a conditional use permit for the address.

"Pandora's box" was opened, says Massoni. The business was ordered to reconfigure its parking, construct a sidewalk, build a fence around the property and adjust its hours of operation and decibel levels to suit community standards. The city served notice that this neighborhood gathering spot was under the microscope.

"From a philosophical standpoint, we agree with having markets in the community," says Jason Burton, an interim zoning officer with the city of Orlando. "When you get a conditional use permit, basically you have to bring the site up to code. In Orlando, we require sidewalks."

So, even though the site's previous occupants had a less than savory reputation — it was a beer-in-bag kind of place — it was able to continue doing business by not updating. The city only looks into zoning issues when businesses request a change in their permitting. No change, no city involvement.

But 903 Mills had to change to stay in business. And it got stuck with the bill and the permitting hassles. The new sidewalk alone will cost $10,000, of which the city has agreed to pay half.

To make sure things don't get too out of hand, the city also stipulates that "the Market shall not serve any alcohol for on-site consumption unless the consumer of the alcoholic beverage also concurrently purchases an appetizer, salad, dessert, or entree menu item."

"How are they going to enforce that?" says Massoni.

Burton says neighbors in the area are concerned that people will treat the place as a bar, urinating in yards and throwing bottles in their bushes. "You have to remember," he says, "it has to be designed correctly and it can't be noxious."

Massoni only has one year to fulfill the city's recommendations or his permit to consume alcohol on premises will be revoked.

So why does the city make it so hard to create those coveted "third places"?

"I think one of the challenges with that type of business is balancing the interests of the business, the interests of its customers and the interests of the neighborhood. And I think that's what was accomplished," says city commissioner, Phil Diamond.

City commissioner Patty Sheehan isn't so sure. "We're being reactionary," she says. "We aren't being visionary." According to Sheehan, the city has cut planning positions in recent years, positions it is only now realizing are important.

The city gives lip service to the concept of mixed-use zoning for places like 903 Mills Market. The recommendation from the planning staff on what to do about 903 Mills, in fact, addresses the issue directly: "The city has a goal of promoting mixed use development within the city, including nonresidential uses in residential areas such as neighborhood businesses within walking distance that provide gathering places for neighborhood residents."

Which sounds nice, until you try to wade through the tangle of zoning restrictions that vary from place to depending on a building's age, history, use and lot size.

"I think you've got two categories," says Diamond. "You've got new development, where there's more flexibility and business owners can build buildings and purchase the land that they need, and the facilities to operate the kind of business they want to operate, while still maintaining compatibility with the neighborhood. I think it's more challenging in existing neighborhoods like the corner of Mills Avenue and Gore Street, where you have a mix of single-family residential uses, multi-family residential uses, a pretty popular park (Lake Davis Park) a block away and 903 Mills."

Sheehan says it more directly. "People enjoying a glass of wine in a tony neighborhood outside is not the same as people loitering for prostitution in another neighborhood," says Sheehan. "It's totally different."

At 903 Mills Market, the father of the penny—finding boy shows up with his baby sister, sets her in a highchair, and takes a big sip from his Heineken. It's been a long day.

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