By Tom Shevlin
One of Lower Thames Street's most venerable restaurants has seen its hopes of offering patrons a European-style outdoor dining experience dashed yet again after Zoning Board members narrowly voted down a request to convert an existing outdoor patio space into a 422-square-foot service area.
The request, by the owners of Asterisk Restaurant, located at 599 Thames St., cut to the heart of a lingering debate over balancing the interests of small businesses with those of neighbors who border the city's downtown core.
According to an application on file with City Hall, owners John and Tracy Bach-Sorensen had hoped to locate roughly 4-6 tables in an outdoor space that had at one time been used for parking.
In 2009, the couple had been denied a more expansive proposal to increase their outdoor service area by over 900 square feet.
However, with the City Council having recently expressed support for outdoor cafes, and with several new al fresco dining options from Broadway to Lower Thames Street, the Sorensons decided it was time to resubmit a scaled-back plan.
Represented by attorney Greg Fater, Tracy Bach-Sorensen told board members that she hoped the addition of an outdoor space would enhance the neighborhood while at the same time help maintain her operation's viability in an increasingly competitive industry.
Likening her request to those of other nearby restaurants including the Newport Blues Cafe and the soon-to-open Jade Cricket at 472 Thames St., Sorenson told board members that her proposal would not include any outdoor entertainment or additional bar area. Rather, she said, it would simply be used for dining as the weather permits.
In business for more than 17 years, Asterisk occupies a sensitive site in the city's downtown, an area where the nightlife of Lower Thames Street begins to spill into the historically residential streets of the Fifth Ward.
The building the restaurant occupies previously had been a gas station and service center. The area proposed for the outdoor patio had been the main driveway for the business.
In the late 1990s, when chef and owner John Bach-Sorensen first chose the building for the location of his new restaurant, it was more a source of neighborhood blight than pride.
Over the years since then, Asterisk has won praise for its chic decor and upscale European fare. In summer, the dining room can be opened to the outdoors by retractable overhead garage doors – a remnant from the building's days as an auto service shop. Diners can also sit outdoors on a thin concrete slab protected by a small awning. But the gravel patio that abuts Thames Street has been off-limits, and some neighbors wanted to see it remain that way.
During a nearly 90-minute hearing, three nearby property owners urged the board to deny the request on the basis that it would infringe on their ability to enjoy their homes and further disrupt an already congested area.
Perhaps the most compelling case was made by Chuck Bolduc, a Dixon Street resident who also opposed the Sorenson's 2009 application.
Bolduc argued that while other downtown restaurants may have been granted permission for similar outdoor spaces, to allow the variance for Asterisk would create a much more intense use on the property and would not be in line with the limited-business district.
"The spirit of limited zoning puts the burden on the business, not on the abutters," he said, adding that limited business zoning was originally created to accommodate a small number of family-owned storefronts that kept more traditional daytime hours.
"Further up Thames Street, the business area is more aggressive," he said. "The beauty of limited business zoning is that it allows [the Zoning Board] to limit the density of use."
In addition to the additional stress on parking, Bolduc said that he feared that the noise from patrons dining outside would create a nuisance for the area.
"Businesses that encourage activity when residents are ending (their days) are not viable businesses for the neighborhood," he contended.
He also suggested that the issue points to a larger problem: "I'm very disturbed at the city's venture into opening limited business (districts) to more intense use at later and later hours."
In conclusion, Bolduc referred to a recent debate over a request to install a sink in a proposed garage on Mount Vernon Street: "If you think a single slop sink in a garage will open a door to a neighborhood's over-development…please consider what this example will do to an ordinance for an entire zoning district."
Bolduc's concerns were similar to those expressed last spring when the owners of the Newport Blues Cafe proposed converting a neighboring parking lot into an outdoor patio space during evening and weekend hours.
In that case, as with Asterisk’s request, abutters of the Blues Cafe argued that the increased noise would cause undue harm to their quality of life. But the Blues Café request was approved. In the Asterisk request, the restaurant’s location within the limited business zone proved critical in the board's decision against the owners.
Attorney Fater argued, however, that the board's decision last month to approve a roughly 400-square-foot outdoor deck at the Jade Cricket restaurant means that it should also approve the Asterisk proposal.
As Fater noted, when the Jade Cricket opens later this year, it will also be located in the limited business zone.
"Fairness and equity scream out to you to pass this petition," he said. Fater also noted that the City Council has gone on record in its desire to see more outdoor cafes as part of the cityscape.
In recent years, restaurants such as the Newport Blues Cafe, Bouchard's, Pour Judgement, Yesterday's, One Eighty, The Fastnet, and The Fifth Element have all secured permission to provide outdoor seating.
However, Asterisk's proximity to neighboring homes has made it a flashpoint.
Board members noted that outdoor service had already been established at that location by previous owners and maintained that the request by Asterisk represented a "slippery slope."
During Tracy Bach-Sorensen's testimony, Zoning Board member Martin Cohen peppered her with questions concerning a collection of letters presented to the board from neighboring residents and business owners expressing their support for the project.
Noting that several of the letters came from nearby business owners, Cohen suggested that their support may be an example of "one hand scratching another" and an indication that other establishments in the area might pursue similar requests in the future.
He said that a hard line must be drawn somewhere along Lower Thames Street to establish where the interests of residents take precedence over those of business owners.
"There is a problem, and it's not of your making," he told the applicant. "It is really up to the Planning Board and the City Council to make clear if they want to change the intent of the areas that are defined as limited business. What we have to do to the best of our abilities is apply the spirit of the ordinance to each case that comes before the board. The question is: Is it the purview of this board to redefine what the Planning Board and City Council has so far yet to do?"
Answering his own rhetorical question, he said that it is not. Instead, "I think of Wellington Avenue, de facto, as being the dividing line."
Fellow board member Robert Buzard agreed, noting that his main concern is the potential for increased noise in the area.
Together, Cohen and Buzard's votes were enough to derail the restaurant's outdoor café proposal.
Three other members of the board, Rebecca McSweeney, Michael Martin, and Lynne Ceglie, voted in favor of the application. However, even they wrestled with their decision.
"The neighborhood that this restaurant is in is not the same as the neighborhoods where we've granted similar requests before," said McSweeney, the board chair. "That's what gives me pause."
Still, she said, because the footprint of the patio was so small, she concluded that the request was reasonable. Martin, who voted against the restaurant's 2009 plan, and Ceglie both said that it would have a minimal impact on the neighborhood and could in fact help improve it.
But due to the board's rules, a simple majority is not enough for approval, and the application was defeated.
The ruling came several days after members of the Planning Board found the application to be in keeping with the city's Comprehensive Land Use Plan.