This week, the conversation about the Mall on Duval threatened to escalate to a brawl on Duval, as restaurateurs and shopkeepers on both sides of the issue adamantly argued their cases to the city commission on Aug. 20. Supporters wore T-shirts declaring “I love the Mall on Duval,” while detractors wore buttons declaring their dissent.
On Aug. 19, the conversation escalated when the law firm Fischer & Sauls sent the city commission a letter, representing “a group of business owners and tenants located on Duval Street” which “strongly objects to the continuation of Mall on Duval.” The letter states that “the members of the group have agreed to combine their collective resources to strongly oppose the continuation of the initiative.”
The letter claims that Mall on Duval is an invalid and illegal use of a publicly dedicated street. It claims that property owners of lots on either side of the street hold title to the center of the street as well, making it illegal for the city to close the street as it has during Mall on Duval.
While the firm’s clients remained unidentified, a number of business owners, property owners and tenants criticized the Mall on Duval at the Aug. 20 meeting.
Owners of Zazoo, Wyland Galleries and Key West Gallery claimed that the Mall on Duval had hurt their sales. Jay and Amber Shaffer from Wyland said extending the pilot through February would be “pretty disastrous for us.” The chorus of gallery owners echoed the same concerns: that while they would be in favor of beautification projects for Duval Street, the “mall” was directing pedestrian traffic away from their stores.
Restaurateurs and bar owners, too, spoke in objection: Daniel Dingeman of Mangoes said Mall on Duval is not working and argued that there is a confusion between beautification and a public pedestrian mall. He conducted an informal poll of businesses and stated that of 64 businesses in the 500-700 blocks, 40 say it’s hurting their businesses. Rick’s and Sloppy Joe’s proprietor Mark Rossi brought photos of a missing light post, a pothole, and full trashcans, and asked the commission to spend money in more substantive ways for beautification rather than street closings.
While loud, the dissenters were nonetheless in the minority of public speakers. Representatives from Life is Good, Tucker’s Provisions, 801 Bourbon and Bourbon Street Pub applauded the pilot program. Ed Russo of The Green Pineapple praised how many locals have returned to Duval during the mall, calling it “the place to be,” and he described it as a way to ward off urban decay. Maureen Johnston of Willie T’s spoke in favor of the program, despite not seeing a marked increase in revenue; she said that it “promotes the positive image of Key West and its unique eclectic charm.”
Bill Lay of La Trattoria said he has had a 10% increase in business. Not only that, but the businesses have worked together. He cited naysayers saying that his clientele would clash with the loud music and atmosphere at Willie T’s, but it has worked harmoniously.
“This island is made of people that say ‘we can,’” said Lay.
The commission, too, was split between sympathies for business owners expressing hardship (that they attributed to Mall on Duval), and the desire to keep momentum of the largely popular downtown revitalization project. Commissioner Clayton Lopez said: “Putting out tables and chairs does not a mall make.” Commissioners Mary Lou Hoover and Gregory Davila expressed concern for the businesses reporting a struggle during the mall and admitted other constituents had praised the program.
Commissioner Jimmy Weekley and Mayor Teri Johnston reminded the public that there were meetings on Mall on Duval every Wednesday, offering the opportunity to opponents to come and speak to forge a compromise. No opponents have attended thus far, said Weekley. Commissioner Samuel Kaufman suggested a formal survey of business owners, not conducted by supporters or detractors of Mall on Duval, but by city staff.
The final words before the vote were from Johnston.
“It’s trying to make a better experience on a street that we can all admit is well-worn at this point,” she said, citing dedicated staff, fire, police, code, planning and legal personnel who have listened to concerned business owners and citizens. She also said that modifications like moving tables to the center of the street and forcing foot traffic back onto the sidewalk are all within the realm of reason.
“We don’t want it to be negative for anybody, but we want to be realistic … and I guess what we are trying to do here is figure out if it is more positive than it is negative.” The commission ultimately agreed that it was more positive, compromising and amending the resolution to extend the pilot through November rather than February.
“You either grow or you die,” said the mayor. The commission voted 4-3 in favor, with Hoover, Lopez and Billy Wardlow dissenting.