The Dec. 6 Key West city commission meeting got snarly during a two-hour discussion of the pocket park at the top of Duval Street, which the city leased four years ago to attorney Michael Halpern, who owns the neighboring Seaside Cafe and Southernmost Mansion. Halpern paid to build the park and still pays to maintain it.
It was the last commission meeting for City Attorney Shawn Smith and the first for newly sworn-in Commissioner Lissette Carey, who was well-prepared and decisive on the dais.
Carey voted with the 5-to-2 majority to approve changes to the city’s lease with the Southernmost Mansion that will allow things to remain as-is for the park at the end of Duval Street.
The city commission had agreed four years ago, after a long and contentious debate, to lease the neglected southernmost block of Duval Street to Halpern, who would pay to transform it into a pedestrian plaza, or pocket park. The area was popular with homeless residents and plagued by flooding, rotting seaweed and cleanliness issues. It also included metered parking spots that backed into an active roadway, which are no longer allowed by transportation officials.
In return for building and maintaining the plaza, Halpern was permitted to place tables and chairs on part of it for the Seaside Cafe he and his son, Rafe, were opening at the Southernmost Mansion. The cafe’s kitchen would be housed in a food truck on the mansion’s private property while the seating would be in the park right out front. The lease required Halpern to pay the city 6.5% of revenues derived from the restaurant seats on city property and to maintain the park.
In addition, Halpern and the Southernmost Beach Cafe across the street each spent about $400,000 on drainage improvements to the area. Halpern said he has invested a total of about $850,000 in the park and drainage and continues to fund its maintenance and landscaping.
The Seaside Cafe at the Mansion quickly became a popular restaurant, receiving national accolades for its pizza and lobster salad on honey butter biscuits. But the park seating never came to fruition due to persistent flooding at the edge of the park, as water seeps over an old boat ramp there, especially during high tide and south winds. So Halpern moved the seats and tables for the Seaside Cafe onto private property at his Southernmost Mansion.
Mayor Teri Johnston, who has been critical of Halpern and outgoing City Attorney Shawn Smith, said Halpern is in violation of his lease because for four years he has not paid the city the 6.5% of gross sales from the cafe that the lease requires.
Halpern emphasized that the cafe tables could never be used on the city’s park property. As such, they generated no revenue, and he owes the city no money. Halpern on Dec. 6 requested a change to his lease that would eliminate the 6.5% requirement, as he is not using city property for his restaurant. Halpern, though, continues to pay to maintain the pocket park and said he has replaced its extensive landscaping four times so far, most recently after Hurricane Ian swamped the area with saltwater, sand and seaweed.
Commissioner Jimmy Weekley asked if Halpern still planned to pay the city 6.5% of revenues from the Seaside Cafe as the lease requires, even though the cafe is situated entirely on private property.
“There is no rent due for tables on private property,” Halpern told Weekley. “I have no obligation to pay the city rent for operating on my own property — especially when you’re now allowing every restaurant in town to operate on city sidewalks without paying rent to the city.” He was referring to the city’s sidewalk cafe program that started during COVID restrictions, but was continued and formalized due to its popularity with diners and business owners.
“I have paid the city what is owed,” Halpern said. “I’ve done everything the city has asked of me. It’s time for the city to show appreciation for the park and not make me the bad guy.”
Fifteen community members spoke at the meeting in support of Halpern and the lease amendment, telling the commissioners they prefer the park as it is — free of commercial activity and restaurant tables. Mercy Hiller highlighted Halpern’s charitable contributions to the community, including the annual Willie Wonka Chocolate Festival at the mansion that has raised more than $100,000 for the Cancer Foundation of the Florida Keys that Hiller founded to help local cancer patients pay bills and rent while undergoing cancer treatment.
Speakers noted that Halpern created the nonprofit Michelle’s Foundation in honor of his late wife. The foundation funds college and vocational scholarships, free after-school tutoring, SAT prep and college essay assistance for local students. It also paid to construct the building on Flagler Avenue that houses Somerset Island Prep charter high school.
Somerset teacher Nick Wright told the commission on Dec. 6, “That SAT prep, tutoring and essay help is only possible because of Michelle’s Foundation, which is funded by the success of the Seaside Cafe and Southernmost Mansion. If this commission guts the Seaside Cafe, we’ll say goodbye to the college scholarships it provides, to jet ski graduation, to snorkeling trips that show our kids the coral reef, to community concerts and other activities that Michelle’s Foundation — through Michael Halpern — supports.”
Bar and restaurant owner Chris Shultz submitted a letter on Halpern’s behalf, reminding the commission that the southernmost block of Duval Street was “an embarassment to the city” until the pocket park provided “a 180-degree turnaround” in the neighborhood that acts as a gateway to Key West’s iconic Southernmost Point buoy.
Representatives from the neighboring Southernmost Beach Resort, directly across the park from the Southernmost Mansion, spoke in favor of the park and Halpern, and against the placement of restaurant tables there.
Resident Margaret Romero said approval of the lease change “should be a no-brainer. I don’t understand the hassle.” She reminded the commission of the “turmoil” that surrounded the park lease and cafe seating approval four years ago. Commissioners were concerned that cafe tables would limit public access to the park and worried that people would be required to buy food or drinks in order to enjoy the new plaza.
Commissioner Sam Kaufman expressed his support for the lease change early in the commission’s Dec. 6 discussion, saying he had voted against the park lease four years ago “only because the cafe tables and chairs were going to be in the park, and we heard person after person plead with us not to approve the chairs and tables in the park. So I’m happy (with this amendment).”
The requested lease change prompted backlash, though, from Johnston and Weekley, who both voted against it.
“So he gets to put the tables and chairs on private property and the city gets hoodwinked,” Weekley said, making no secret of a long-held animosity between him and Halpern. Weekley added that Halpern had moved the tables onto private property without authorization from the city, as Seaside Cafe is only licensed for 20 seats. As such, Weekley claimed, Halpern owed the city impact fees for each unauthorized seat.
City Attorney Shawn Smith noted during the discussion that the city’s lease with Halpern makes no mention of per-seat impact fees. Additionally, Smith said, when the commission approved the lease four years ago, they also granted additional seats to the neighboring Southernmost Beach Resort without requiring that business to pay additional impact fees.
During the meeting, Commissioner Carey calculated that the impact fees for Halpern’s extra seats would total a little more than $40,000 — compared to the $800,000 or so he has spent on drainage improvements, the park itself and continuing maintenance and landscaping.
Commissioners Billy Wardlow and Kaufman agreed with her.
“I want to thank Michael for spending the $800,000,” Wardlow said. “He’s still maintaining the park, so I think the impact fees are kind of a wash.”
Johnston said the issue at hand was a lease violation, not the character of Michael Halpern. She added that Halpern had volunteered four years ago to spend the $800,000. The city didn’t require him to do so, she said.
Halpern vehemently disagreed, saying the city had approached him years ago and asked him to help with the drainage issues in the area.
“Tell the truth, mayor,” Halpern yelled from the audience.
The lease amendment ultimately passed with Johnston and Weekley dissenting. The pocket park will remain as it is, with no restaurant seating, and no obligation that Halpern pay the city 6.5% for space he is not using.
In other city news….
- Commissioners appointed Chief Assistant City Attorney Ron Ramsingh as interim city attorney while officials undertake a search for a new city attorney. Ramsingh has applied for that position, which concerned Weekley, who said he didn’t like the idea of someone who has applied for the job having the benefit of being named to it in the interim. The appointment of Ramsingh ultimately passed.
- Commissioners unanimously approved a plan for Tropic Cinema and the Key West Library to host free monthly outdoor movies in the block of Eaton Street between Duval and Whitehead streets. The movies will run December through April and will include screenings of “Gremlins,” “Big,” “Star Wars,” “Back to the Future,” “Footloose” and “Grease.”