Dead In The Water
John Atkinson is steamed over the waterfront plan that will wipe his business off the map.
Thursday, April 5, 2001
John Atkinson is beginning to feel like a marked man. Fifteen years ago, the state of Maine, exercising its right of eminent domain, demolished Atkinson''s antiques business in order to widen a highway by five feet. Five years ago, the displaced antiques dealer made a fresh start, buying two buildings just beyond the entrance to Monterey''s Wharf II and opening up the eclectic Karaoke (Cyber) Kafe, a quirky eatery/Internet cafe/karaoke bar/used bookstore combo.
But now Atkinson''s getting an uncomfortable sense of deja vu. Seems yet another government entity is gearing up to put him out of business--this time the city of Monterey, which wants to create a more attractive entrance to the wharf as part of an ongoing effort to beautify the waterfront. Preliminary plans show the city moving or demolishing the unattractive warehouse structures littering the Wharf II area--including Atkinson''s funky enterprise--in an effort to create more open space, improve parking and move the Recreation Trail closer to the shore.
Monterey city officials have waited for years to get their hands on the property owned by Catellus Corporation, the real estate arm of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and last April they got their wish. The city purchased the plot to the left of the Wharf II entrance, where a parking lot and the old Del Monte Express rail station now sit, for $3.24 million, and has an option to buy the parcel to the right, where Atkinson''s cafe sits, for another $3.96 million.
Last year, the city held a public meeting to gather input about how the land should be redeveloped, then hired RRM Design Group to develop a plan for the site. In January, the consultant unveiled three proposals. To Atkinson''s dismay, all three alternatives call for preserving or relocating the surrounding businesses--Monterey Bay Kayaks, Royal Seafoods, and Adventures by the Sea--except for the Karaoke (Cyber) Kafe. Atkinson''s is the only business that disappears in all three proposals.
The reason for erasing the cafe from the plan, offers Community Development Director Bill Wojtkowski in a Feb. 28 letter to Atkinson, is "to increase open space and views across the site." Atkinson''s buildings sit right on the spot where city land use plans call for a "view corridor" to open up ocean views from the Wharf II entrance. The problem with Wojtkowski''s explanation is that one alternative shows Atkinson''s two buildings being removed and a new one constructed on the same site "that may be more efficient in accommodating coastal dependent uses than your existing businesses," Wojtkowski wrote.
Atkinson says he understands city leaders'' desire to open up views and make the area look nice. He even removed a bulky barbecue in the shape of a steam engine to open up the view shed. "If it turns out people want that view corridor, it''s a democracy, that''s fine," he says. But he would have liked more input in the process. "Seems to me they''ve gone about things backwards," he says. "Seems to me they should have come to the businesses first."
So far, the city has failed to offer any assurance of compensation or help to move his business. Atkinson owns his two buildings, but not the ground underneath them--he rents 7,500 square feet of land from the Catellus Corporation for $1,610 a month. Should the city buy the property and not renew his lease, Atkinson fears he''ll be left with two buildings and no place to put them. And because the city is only buying the ground beneath his buildings and not the buildings themselves, Atkinson may not qualify for compensation or relocation assistance.
He says he''d be glad to move his buildings over to the less scenic west end of the property next to the train depot, but so far, no one has offered.
"What am I going to do?" Atkinson wonders. "Put my buildings in my hip pocket and be on my way?"
That would be a darn shame, according to his customers, who appreciate the cafe''s bargain basket of fish and chips for $7.75, a relative deal compared to similar offerings downtown and on Fisherman''s Wharf. So far, Atkinson has collected 215 signatures from customers, mostly tourists, who have signed a petition to save the cafe.
One traveler hailing from the UK wrote: "Best fish & chips in town and most important, a place to keep in touch with home via Internet access--VITAL!!!" And a tourist from Pagosa Springs, Colo., wrote: "This place has good food and is quite cheap. We just spent an hour looking for good, cheap food and just found it."
But a number of different interests have their own agendas for the land, and most of them don''t include fried fish and Web surfing. In last year''s public hearing, Atkinson and other business owners renting from Catellus implored the city to allow their buildings to stay where they are. But Mayor Dan Albert made it abundantly clear that evening that the city''s not forking over $7.2 million to retain the status quo. Atkinson, who originally hails from Brighton, England, argues his fish & chips business fills a need for low-priced food service to beachgoers, a need the city recognizes in its land use plans.
Planning Commission Chair David Stocker sees the value of Atkinson''s argument, but says the businessowner is jumping the gun. The planning process for the Catellus land has just begun.
"The Karaoke Kafe has made a good argument for the need of an inexpensive restaurant down there," Stocker says. "We don''t know what businesses will be left when this all shakes out."
That doesn''t necessarily offer hope for Atkinson''s two buildings. Senior Planner Richard Marvin says a restaurant or concession stand could go into the historic railroad warehouse, which might be moved across the wharf entrance to the west side to house a visitors center.
"There will probably be opportunities for some sort of food uses or concessions in the area," Marvin says. "Whether it absolutely follows the configuration of the Karaoke Kafe, I don''t know the answer to that."
The city holds a public workshop on the Catellus redevelopment plan Monday at 7pm in Monterey City Council Chambers at Madison and Pacific.