On the surface, the dispute over a rooftop bar in Hillcrest is about noise. It's about parking issues. It's about the future use of the building itself. Beneath that, though, the locals are debating something much larger: the future of their neighborhood.
Joe St. Ana, owner of Crush Wine Bar in the River Market, plans to open a new wine, martini and tapas bar at 2611 Kavanaugh Blvd., in the space formerly occupied by Lemon creperie. That's an idea that most Hillcrest residents seem to be comfortable with. However, plans for the restaurant, called Diversion, include a rooftop dining area, and that has some neighbors concerned.
Robin Borne is an architect whose office is on the second floor of the building adjacent to Diversion's location, which also includes Ferneau restaurant. He served as a board member of the Hillcrest Residents Association for seven years and says it's always been important to him that the neighborhood maintain a balance between residential and commercial interests.
“Nobody's saying, ‘You can't have a restaurant.' All they are saying is don't put the deck on the roof,” Borne says. “And I don't wish the owners any ill will at all. I don't like seeing empty buildings on Kavanaugh. It makes the neighborhood more viable to have a strong commercial presence. All I'm looking for is balance.”
The reaction from the local residents is something St. Ana says he and co-owner Jay Patel have considered.
“We don't try to ruffle anybody's feathers,” St. Ana says. “People are very happy with their property and you have to listen to them. The rooftop idea is a concept that we'd like to do. Nothing is set in stone because we want to make everybody happy.”
Debra Keddie and her husband, Michael, live 53 feet away from the rooftop St. Ana wants to convert into a dining area. An alleyway behind their house leads from their back fence directly to the rooftop. Keddie has started a petition drive against Diversion's rezoning request.
“We don't have anything against the business,” Keddie says. “We like our local merchants and we do support them, but we don't want them to be intrusive. We realize that their perspective is different from ours. As business people, their priority is the bottom line. Our priority is to preserve our quality of life.”
But as Borne is quick to point out, this isn't just a squabble between one business and a group of homeowners. It's a fight for what he calls the “tenor of the neighborhood.”
“I guess the fear is that Kavanaugh is turning into Bourbon Street,” he says. “There are a lot of people in Hillcrest who think that we're getting a little too bar-oriented and a little less family-oriented. And I think you have to have a balance for a successful neighborhood. I'm afraid that allowing this deck to occur might be a tipping point that's going to cause irreversible damage as far as commercial intrusion goes.”
St. Ana is seeking to have the building rezoned from C-3 commercial to a planned commercial development (PCD). The Little Rock Planning Commission will take up the request Oct. 15. The planning staff is recommending against the rezoning, but the commission does not always follow the staff's recommendations. If the commission approves the rezoning, it will go to the city Board of Directors for final approval. If it denies it, St. Ana can appeal directly to the city board.
Not everyone opposes the idea. A lively discussion is taking place online, in the Hillcrest Neighborhood Association's Yahoo group. HNA board member Scott Smith said in a recent post that he was in the “support column.”
“Regarding the noise,” he wrote, “there are businesses on either side. Several businesses stay open as late as the one that is proposed, and some even have outdoor dining. There will be no live bands, amplified music, nor anything else (other than people) that create noise. It's simply a place to have drinks and appetizers.”
If the rezoning request is granted, the Planning Commission can set limits on things like hours of operation or limits on amplified music. St. Ana says he's going for a “classy” atmosphere and will take measures to keep things down.
Keddie says she takes the owners at their word, but has concerns for the future.
“He's proposing no music at this time. But we not only have to worry about this guy, but who goes in after them. If this request is granted, then it might make it easier for the next guy to chip away and get what he wants,” she says.
Keddie and others say they have no problem with the restaurant itself, just the rooftop. When asked if she would enjoy a cocktail on the restaurant roof should the measure pass, Keddie laughed and said it was unlikely, but she was sure “there are plenty that would.”