By Tom Shevlin
NEWPORT – City Council members on Wednesday voted in favor of an amended application to allow the Newport Blues Cafe to install an outdoor patio in the parking lot adjacent to the popular Thames Street night spot.
The approval, however, includes several conditions limiting the size and scope of the patio. It also came over the objection of neighbors who late last month turned out in force to oppose a similar application in front of the Zoning Board of Review.
The original proposal, which required a special use permit and a parking variance, allowed for the installation of up to 20 tables plus an outdoor bar and grill, and would have permitted up to 100 people to congregate in the open-air space.
According to an application on file with City Hall, the patio would be located in the parking lot between the Blues Cafe and Sovereign Bank, would only be open when the bank is closed, and each night it would be disassembled and moved indoors.
Owners Kate and James Quinn have said that the proposal stemmed from an increasingly difficult economic climate.
According to James Quinn, a retired longtime Newport Police officer, the last few years have proved difficult for the downtown club. In addition to the persistent economic malaise, he said that his landlord had recently raised his rent, and the business as it's currently configured is limited to evening hours.
Neighbors, however, worried that increased noise and night-time activity would negatively impact business in the area and further degrade the quality of life in one of the city's most historic neighborhoods.
As he did before the Zoning Board, James Wermuth, who has lived at 32 Green St. since 1974, asked the council for a continuance, arguing that neighbors hadn't been given enough time to review the proposal.
Others pleaded that the council consider the impact the patio could have on the adjacent residential neighborhood, and questioned whether Newport needed another place to drink.
Herber Valkenberg, who lives at and owns The Almondy Inn on Pelham Street, argued that approving the patio "is not the example the city wants to set."
"The council seems to be all about being pro-business," he said. "Well, I own a business in town…but no one seems to be looking out for us."
Adding that only the petitioner has something to gain in the proposal, he urged the council to consider that while many bars and restaurants on the water side of America's Cup Avenue do have patios and outdoor bars, they do not abut residences and historic neighborhoods.
For their part, the council seemed to be of two minds regarding the expansion – weighing the concerns of constituents who live in the Hill neighborhood, against those of a business operating in a General Business zone.
Councilor Naomi Neville said that she had concerns over the intent of the patio.
"Are we trying to create an outdoor restaurant or is this a bar," she asked. "I could support a restaurant...but the bar is troubling."
Mayor Stephen C. Waluk, however, pointed out that the applicants were well within the law to ask for the expansion and argued that residents should keep in mind that the Blues Cafe is located "on Thames Street, in Newport, R.I.; a major tourist destination."
Likening the proposal to the patio that exists at Kilwin's Chocolates just a few doors down, he saw no reason to deny the Quinns their license.
However, Second Ward Councilor Justin S. McLaughlin framed the request as a "vision issue."
"It's about Newport," he said. "Call me Puritanical," he added, but "I don't think we need more places for people to get drunk."
And while he acknowledged that no one can be sure of what might come from allowing such an outdoor seating area, he said that it was up to the council to at least try to determine "what might be."
Seeking compromise, Councilor Henry F. Winthrop pushed a new proposal that seemed to satisfy some of those concerns. Among the conditions proposed: limiting the number of tables to a total of 15, prohibiting the outdoor bar set-up, and requiring that the patio be taken down no later than 10 p.m.
Winthrop posed the question as one of balance.
To the residents, he said that he understands that people want to end the growth of rowdy behavior that goes along with the city's bar scene. However, at the same time, he noted that "We're already halfway through the season" and further, the license would need to come back for renewal at the end of the year. The next six weeks, he said, should be seen as a "trial run."
In the end, they voted 4-3, with Councilors McLaughlin, Napolitano, and Leonard opposed.