Monday, October 15, 2012
Let me make a wild guess and I will state that given a choice between the West Marine hardware store, the Coffee Plantation coffee shop and Schooner Wharf Bar, the one most people in, and enamored of, Key West would least like to see disappear is the last, Evalena Worthington's bar. What these businesses have in common is that they surround the former Jabours trailer park property where almost one hundred new hotel rooms are supposed to be built soon.
The hotel project has run into some opposition and a group of neighbors has got behind a local retired attorney who is leading the charge against the development. Or more accurately is demanding transparency from the city planners and is asking why exactly does the hotel project require seven variances from the zoning for the property. When it was Jabours it was a palm filled gravel nook that filled with travel trailers and RVs in winter at a time when Key West land was worth less than it was at the height of the property boom. The Jabours family got out just in time and the land was cleared for a proposed housing project.
The property boom ended too soon for the first group of developers who built one model home, right across from Schooner Wharf and promptly went bust. There it sits a monument to failed hopes and dreams.
The idea was to build a bunch of these Conch style homes and immediately the debate became one of how to protect Schooner Wharf. Live music, bars and residential neighborhoods don't mix traditionally speaking, and there was the fear, expressed loudly and at some length that this new residential cluster was going to create problems for the already existing Schooner Wharf, which lies just across the street from the property to be developed. This is the side of the model home facing Lazy Way Lane:
So across the narrow lane lies the bar, the famous "last little piece of Old Key West," a slogan that makes genuine old timers smile wryly and point out that Schooner Wharf has 'only' been around since 1987 which doesn't give the place bragging rights. The happy tourists imbibing the funky atmosphere might beg to disagree. Opponents of the development seem to hope the love for the bar might weigh in on their side. What if the new hotel proposal puts the future of the beloved Schooner Wharf front and center in this neighborhood drama? What if Schooner Wharf's very existence is threatened?
Let me say I am not a devotee of Schooner Wharf, but that doesen't mean much as I'm not a bar fly in general and though I do drink alcohol I'm not much for "making friends" on barstools. I am in a minority in this town. Yeah I know, the question is: how can sitting on my verandah at home with a cheap gin and tonic beat this? Jack Riepe is my brother by another mother and father, so where he and his kin find refuge in a bar I find noise and confusion and expensive drinks.
Nowadays the bar has a construction crew working on the end of the building that burned in a fire. They are hard at it with their supplies stored on the empty lot, the part we future hotel customers are not allowed to trespass on. "No Trespassing " scream the signs at passers by.
So I was quite surprised to hear that in fighting the lawsuit the neighbors are hoping to preserve more than just the zoning limitations imposed by the city. With seven variances requested by the developer the lawsuit seeks to question the number of rooms, nearly one hundred and the number of parking spaces, less than 25 never mind where the employees will park, and that's probably not in the dozens of assigned bicycle spaces...
So with the battle of the variances about to get underway, if the developers get their variances and win their lawsuits etc...there is a chance that things are going to change radically in this neighborhood we are hinted, and as though to add fuel to the fire the rumor mill is churning and the suggestion from the opponents of the development is that perhaps the waterfront area around the we hotel will also undergo a radical transformation in the wake of the new proposed construction.
Lazy Way Lane, that quintessential Key West oddity paralleling the waterfront may disappear they say and along with it the little stores that make a living under the palms. I'm no shopper so that I wouldn't miss them even though I enjoy the odd little street and it's vibrant colors. So maybe I would miss it, so this development might be an issue. You never know.
The rumor mill also suggests the owner of the Coffee Plantation is ready to move on and wecan expect to see the little Caroline Street business bulldozed to make for the hotel. Geographically I suppose that makes sense. Guess what, I don't eat pastries nor do I drink rich drinks a puritanical drive to live better into my imminent old age. But I do like businesses that aren't chains. I have no idea if the coffee shop may vanish into the maws of a new hotel, but on the off chance, maybe the hotel isn't such a good idea.
And let it be noted, West Marine the boat hardware store has already announced a move to new digs up the street still on Caroline but away from its current location, which means the proposed hotel development could fit a few parking spaces here, if the land went into the development next door.
The most surprising suggestion I heard was that Schooner wharf might be ready to move on also into that void of businesses that once were in Key West. The sort of disappearing act carried out by the Cuban Club, the Huki Lau and Fast Buck Freddie's. That would be a coup for Pritam Singh's hotel. In one fell swoop all noise objections blow away, neighbor issues fade and the hotel gets ahold of some delicious waterfront property, making it a true rival to Conch Harbor up the street.
In a recent editorial the Worthingtons noted they helped lay the ground work for the modern Key Wet Bight waterfront and they entered willingly into a partnership with the city to create the modern boardwalk with its businesses, many leased by the city. They also noted their original plans called for private ownership outright of property still owned by Key West. There is no doubt this kind of waterfront would make any developer salivate.
So the question then becomes, what is likely to happen when the hotel gets built. I assume the lawsuit will be a bump, not a block in the path. Will it really spell gentrification doom for this corner of "old Key West" whatever that is? For me it's hard to imagine that the vibrant colors not only of Lazy Way Lane but the whole waterfront will be swept away in some sort of Parrot Key Resort opulence. But there again one looks at Duval Street and is surprised by the number of chain stores and sandwich shops that are moving out locally grown businesses. That's been an inexorable change over the last fifty years since local developers started the business of saving a decaying downtown core. Success breeds change. Mutatis mutandis and therefore the necessary changes having been made we move on into our brave new world. I know that in the world in which we live this is no great thing, and certainly I worry more about the report in zero hedge that our Democrat-led government is making plans to put thirty thousand drones in the skies over our country to kept us either safe or surveiled (you choose), and the ugliness over a development fight in a small southern town doesn't mean much. Except perhaps it does. Facts are stubborn things, John Adams the lawyer said at the famous revolutionary trial when he successfully defended the indefensible. So nowadays when we have more information at our fingertips than ever (switch pages here and read the South China Morning Post, for instance. Don't care about Hong Kong? Your loss...they are on the Internet for all to see) we seem to rely more than ever on rumor innuendo and fear. As much as ever might be the better way to put it - here be dragons still on the empty quarters of our maps, in this the 21st century. Our political leaders get elected on innuendo and fear so no surprise that the method trickles down into every aspect of our modern lives.
Schooner Wharf on that timeline would have another twenty five years of representing the last little piece of old Key West, but there again with the new wing rebuilt and that lovely waterfront going begging a developer could conceivably make an offer a bar owner could find hard to refuse. I hope no one is noticing the pivotal role Schooner Wharf plays in the rumor mill that is the changing world of the Southernmost City.