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Downtown Development Authority recommends outdoor cafe can be east or west of eatery, not in park



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June 29, 2011 - After a lengthy discussion and three failed motions during its June 20 meeting, the Oxford Downtown Development Authority board ultimately voted 5-4 to recommend that a downtown restaurant be allowed to have outdoor seating on the sidewalk area located on the east or west side (front or rear) of its building, but not in Centennial Park as proposed.

"The people in this community paid for upgrading that park time and time again. It's their park," said DDA member and village President Teri Stiles, who made the successful motion.

At issue is the Ox Bar & Grill's request to utilize a 390-square-foot (15-foot-by-26-foot) portion of the park located on the north side, adjacent to the garden as a fenced-in outdoor cafe for restaurant customers between April 15 and Nov. 1 as provided by ordinance. The fencing would be removed when the cafe's closed for the season.

The proposed cafe, which would require a special use permit that may or may not have to be renewed annually, would be located on a section of park land that is currently paved and contains two table-and-bench sets installed for public use. Plans for the proposed cafe depict nine tables capable of seating 30 Ox customers.

It was noted at the DDA meeting that despite the board's recommendation, the Ox could only realistically install outdoor seating on the east side (front) of the building because the restaurant doesn't have direct access to the west side (rear) and there isn't enough space back there to accommodate a cafe area.

Both opposition and support for the proposal was expressed at the DDA meeting.

"I think it's going to set a bad precedent for someone to encroach on our parks," said DDA member Bill Dunn, who also serves as township supervisor. "These parks were put there not for for-profit businesses to make money."

DDA members Ed Hunwick and Kevin Wisely also expressed opposition, but their objections were based on the fact that the Ox is looking to use the park property free of charge as opposed to leasing it from the village.

"I don't think it makes sense to allow them to use public property free of charge, specifically if the public is not willing to relinquish the property to them anyway," Hunwick said.

"I think it's a terrible idea to give away our parks for free to a for-profit business," said Wisely, who noted he "might support" such a proposal if the Ox was willing to pay the community for use of the park property.

Dunn indicated he appreciated Hunwick and Wisely's comments, but his opposition was based on principle, not dollars and cents.

"There's no amount of money that would change my mind because now you're setting a precedent," he said. "If we do that, then we have to do it for everybody in that plaza whether they want to sell pizza out there or do whatever. Once you do it, you're done."

Not everyone on the DDA board was opposed to the Ox's proposal.

Instead of automatically assuming it will be a negative, DDA member Anna Taylor encouraged people to consider the possibility that this outdoor cafe will have a positive impact.

"The sky is not going to fall," she said. "The worst thing is not going to happen. We're not giving (the Ox) a 99-year lease on this piece of property."

"If it's really terrible, it stops. It goes away," Taylor continued. "But I ask you what if it was really terrific? What if we did it as a pilot program and it was really, really great? People loved it. People came from all over to go there and to see it. People said that's one of the most novel ideas you guys could come up with."

"Are we really giving this a fair shake or are we like Chicken Little's 'The sky is falling'? I don't believe that's the way we should be," Taylor noted.

DDA member Chuck Schneider pointed out that outdoor dining is very popular these days.

"Everybody's moving in that direction because that's what the customers want," he said, noting that Kruse & Muer on M-24 in Orion is looking to construct an outdoor seating area.

Outdoor dining is something Oxford currently lacks, according to Schneider.

"We don't offer that dining opportunity here," he said. "You've got to go someplace else and I think that's very bad."

It should be noted that other downtown eateries currently offer outdoor seating including the 24th Street Sports Tavern, The Oxford Tap and Red Knapp's American Grill.

Schneider believes the Ox's proposal would give people a chance to enjoy the park's beauty and recognize all the work that's gone into maintaining and improving it.

"I think it's a wonderful way for people to appreciate the park itself," he said.

Schneider suggested that perhaps compromises could be reached such as the Ox agreeing not to serve alcoholic beverages in their outdoor cafe.

This would negate the need to have it fenced-in, which is a requirement of the state Liquor Control Commission.

Schneider agreed with Taylor about the need to view the Ox's proposal in a positive light.

"Let's not think the worst," he said. "Let's think the best and then go from there. Is the glass half empty or is it half full? We're going on the half-empty program and that's not a good way to be. We should at least attempt to give this a chance and see how it works."

Schneider noted how the owner of the Ox invested millions of dollars to construct a beautiful building to replace the one that used to sit there and house Pat's Place restaurant.

"It was a dump," he said.

DDA Chairman Kevin Stephison expressed his desire to see a meeting of the minds between those who adamantly oppose the Ox's proposal and those who strongly support it. "Compromise is how you move forward," he said.

DDA member Don Sherman noted it's "hypocritical" to say public spaces in Oxford aren't currently used for profit. He cited the Hamburger Festival and the Christmas parade as examples.

However, resident and former village president Sue Bossardet noted those are special events lasting one to three days, not a seven-month proposition like the Ox's cafe.

Amongst the public who attended the DDA meeting, most were opposed to turning part of the park into an extension of the restaurant.

"I don't think any company should be able to come in and use our tiny, beautiful little park for free," said Oxford resident Chris McNally.

Barbara Blanock, of Oxford, expressed her fear that if the Ox's outdoor cafe is allowed in the park, it will eventually become a "food arcade with private spaces on both sides" and "nothing" left for the public.

"If they are going to take public space from this park, that is setting a precedent that I'm very uncomfortable with," said Carole Doemer, of Oxford.

Doemer, who visits the park on a regular basis to help maintain the Oxford Garden Club's area, objected to comments made at a previous meeting that the park is currently under-utilized by the public on a daily basis and the only time people are there is for special events.

"Every time I am there, there is either somebody sitting in the gazebo listening to music, walking their dog, sitting on one of the chairs for a short time (or) having lunch at one of the tables," she said. "There's always somebody there. Maybe not a horde of people, but there's always somebody there."

Lisi DeCampos, who owns downtown's Ella Fashion (24 S. Washington St.), spoke in favor of the Ox's proposal. She believes it will draw more people to the park, leading them to use it more and appreciate its beauty.

DeCampos believes a compromise can be reached to make everybody happy.

She suggested that maybe the Ox would be willing to refrain from serving alcoholic beverages in the outdoor seating area.

It should be noted that alcoholic beverages are currently prohibited by ordinance on all village park property.

Village Planning Commissioner John DuVal encouraged the DDA board to involve all interested parties in the discussion over the Ox's proposal.

"The bottom-line is that park is something of a sovereign area. It belongs specifically and in fact, to the village taxpayer. It belongs in spirit, just like the museum, to the township taxpayer. Their voices really must be heard before we even consider taking a part of that park."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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