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Downtown pub still seeking sidewalk cafe

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The owners of the Thomas Meagher Bar have returned to the the city’s Public Works Committee with another request to expand its outdoor seating into a larger sidewalk cafe. (Photo courtesy of Meagher Bar)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

The owners of a popular downtown Missoula pub returned to the City Council’s Public Works Committee on Wednesday with another request to expand its outdoor seating into a larger sidewalk cafe.

The Thomas Meagher Bar made a similar appeal last year, though the proposal was tabled by the committee over concerns for the permanent loss of six parking spots. The new concept would be seasonal in nature and impact three parking spaces from May to October.

“We decided the loss of (six) parking spots was an issue for something that would only be used seasonally,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “But instead of just denying the project, we tabled it in Public Works and encouraged them to come back with a different proposal.”

While the new proposal remains in design, the committee was generally supportive of the plan. As envisioned, it would include a removable outdoor patio to accommodate roughly seven tables while leaving the sidewalk open to pedestrians.

The patio would occupy three parking spots from May 1 to October 15 and be removed over the winter months. The Missoula Parking Commission was against the earlier proposal and has yet to weigh in on the latest idea.

“It’s our understanding this is a direction the city would like to move in,” said Meagher Bar owner Mark Schmechel. “It’s trying to encourage sidewalk dining downtown, but we’re kind of the guinea pig. We’re the first ones to propose something like this downtown.”

The city’s Greater Downtown Master Plan, adopted in 2009, looks to create a “vibrant street for pedestrians” and calls for improvements that strive for “a high-quality pedestrian environment.”

That includes an energized downtown district with outdoor cafes and a sense of vibrancy. Committee members agreed the Schmechel’s proposal would add flair to the district, though Ward 4 council member John DiBari was reluctant to approve the permit on a long-term basis.

“We should be supporting these kinds of things, and I’d be willing to use this as a trial situation, but not entertain any other proposals like this from others downtown until we try this first,” DiBari said. “I want to make sure we have an experience that’s positive for the business owner and the community before we do more of these things.”

Like the council did last year, DiBari expressed concerns over the loss of parking outside City Hall, even on a temporary basis. He also said the city’s sidewalks are too narrow and already compete for a number of uses, including trees, lights, sandwich boards, seating, people and bike facilities.

“There’s incredible competition for our sidewalk space downtown,” he said. “If we can’t make them bigger, it doesn’t make sense to further constrain the space by putting more things in it. We should use this opportunity to think on a broader scope. If this becomes popular and acceptable, we need a process to move forward.”

DiBari suggested changes to the pub’s proposal, such as leaving an aisle down the sidewalk and arranging tables on either side of it. The recommendation meets Montana Department of Revenue regulations guiding establishments that serve alcohol.

Ward 6 council member Michelle Cares said it was unfair to expect the pub’s owners to invest the money to expand the outdoor cafe without offering any long-term certainty. Other council members agreed, as did Schmechel.

He estimated the cost of building a temporary patio to accommodate patrons at $25,000. Allowing the business to expand in the summer months, he added, would add vibrancy to the district and attract customers to the business.

The Irish-themed pub would compensate the city for revenues lost to the temporary reduction in parking.

“In a perfect world for us, we’d like to see a three-year permit with an annual review,” said Schmechel. “It would be nice to get a three-year permit contingent upon following the rules. That would give us some form of certainty.”

The committee is expected to revisit the issue in the coming weeks.