Specialty café would be the first of its kind in Lewiston
Article and photos by Joshua Maloni
Lewiston residents can weigh in Monday on plans to convert the historic Kelly House into a café and specialty market. A public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the Red Brick Municipal Building, 145 N. Fourth St.
As stated in its business plan, "Niagara Marketplace & Bistro is a new company that will offer customers organic and locally grown produce, chemical and preservative-free groceries, cruelty-free body care and eco-household products. Additionally, our kitchen will offer healthy lunch and dinner options emphasizing organic and whole food options."
Located at 400 Plain St. (on the corner of South Fourth Street), the business would serve vegan, vegetarian and organic foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Seating would exist in the Kelly House living room, on the side patio and outside on the veranda. The products used in the prepared dishes will be available for purchase within a market-type setup in the building's numerous first floor side rooms.
"We're going to start out with a small café, serving healthy foods - some natural, non-GMO (genetically modified organism). Something different for Lewiston, we think," said Paul Licata, one of the Niagara Marketplace & Bistro partners. "We're also going to sell some natural products - non-GMO products. Things you don't really find at Tops and at supermarkets."
Licata added, "Lewiston has a lot of different things, you know, unique restaurants, businesses. We thought this was a bit unique, as well: Natural products, natural foods that you don't see in Niagara Falls and Lewiston, yet. That's what attracted us."
Claudia Marasco, who officially acquired the Kelly House in February, called the site an investment property. Though it's intended to bring her revenue, she said the greater goal is investing in Lewiston.
"I said when I bought the building that I promised that it would be well taken care of," Marasco said. "It would not go into disarray. You would never have to pull it down."
Moreover, "I want to see people sitting on that veranda. I want them to enjoy that building and the beauty of the village," she said. "And with the free concerts with the gazebo, and people streaming to Artpark, or people maybe going down the waterfront that aren't going to go on a ride or doing anything like that, but they are looking for someplace to come that is different, (they can come here)."
Marasco said she's admired the circa-1852 house for many years. Now that she owns it, she wants to share it.
"I always felt the public should be able to come into that majestic building," she said. "I just feel a real sense of beauty in there, in the architectural features. But it's not overwhelming. It's not so upscale that it's unapproachable.
"It hasn't been a business for several years - since the apothecary was in there. So now we want to put a different kind of spin on what the business actually should be, because it's such a natural setting. The natural food component, really, I think is a complementary (use)."
If the Village Board approves the Niagara Marketplace & Bistro plan, the business could open in time for Memorial Day. Regular hours would be from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the latest (depending on Hennepin Park Gazebo and Artpark events).
The Kelly House is located in an R-2 (two-family residential) zoned district. As such, Niagara Marketplace & Bistro needed a special use permit, which it received Tuesday.
The business's partners first presented their proposal to the Historic Preservation Commission/Village Planning Board on Monday.
Board members were satisfied with the building's usage, and pleased the plan doesn't call for exterior changes
"It seems to lend itself nicely to (a café)," Chairman Kenneth Slaugenhoupt said.
"It's a beautiful building," board member David Giusiana said. "It's beautifully maintained and taken care of. It's a jewel of the Village of Lewiston."
Though it was built as a residence, Giusiana said it's unlikely a single family would be interested in a living in such a large property (4,725 square feet).
"To me, it's an excellent reuse of it, even with this slightly more intensified use of the café," he said.
Village Historian Pam Hauth, who lives near the Kelly House, said, "It was built as a residence; it wasn't intended as a business, originally."
Planning Board members were uneasy about the café/market's impact on traffic. Board member Norm Machelor expressed concern about parking spilling down the street and bothering residents.
A debate arose Monday with the Planning Board, and continued Tuesday with the Zoning Board of Appeals, with regard to the café/market's parking spaces. The former determined the property has five existing spaces on site - tucked between the house and the gazebo. They said it would need five more spaces.
The Planning Board discussed parking alternatives - including expanding the current parking lot and entering into an agreement with other parking lot owners (the church across the street, or at the Red Brick).
"I think you're getting the idea that we're really concerned about parking in the Village of Lewiston," Slaugenhoupt said. "It is a major problem. We don't have a lot of places to turn to. This is a very serious issue."
Unable to find a solution, the Planning Board denied the special use permit based on limited parking spaces. Members sent the Niagara Marketplace & Bistro proposal to the ZBA - with a recommendation that board grant a parking variance. With such a code modification in place, the Planning Board would approve the permit.
The ZBA was split on granting a variance.
Board member Edward Finkbeiner said the village's parking problem "is part of the nature of our seasonality. There's nothing we can do about that."
Board member Peter MacLaren said businesses help lower village taxes.
"It does. It reduces it for everybody," Finkbeiner said.
"It brings good money into the village," MacLaren said.
"Personally, I'm in favor of a variance," Finkbeiner said. "I think we keep our green space. Eliminate the asphalt."
"We have taverns that were gas stations that created no parking, and now they're bringing in 100 cars at a time," he added.
Finkbeiner called it "a double-edge sword. ... Parking is a conundrum. It's the good, the bad and the ugly of running a municipality."
ZBA member Bart Klettke said granting a variance would be a double standard. He referenced an old proposal for condominiums behind the Frontier House. That plan was rejected, in part, he said, because of a lack of parking spaces.
Plus, Klettke said the proposal has "come to us at the last minute. ... It's just all of a sudden plopped in front of us. I got a couple of letters from neighbors who are complaining."
The ZBA received two letters from three residents concerned about neighborhood traffic.
Board members Michael Swanson said, "One of the issues that I have is it was a business before that a few people would be going in and out of. This letter here says there's 50 to 60 people. That's a lot of cars. That's a lot of space that we don't have in that area."
Finkbeiner said seating and parking are not 1:1. Even if the business did max out at 50 or 60 at one time, which he said is unlikely, that wouldn't mean an equal number of cars.
Licata said the number of inside tables would be eight. Only a few more would exist in the other dining areas. As such, he didn't expect overwhelming crowds.
Swanson said the ZBA needed more time to assess the situation before making a decision.
"We really shouldn't make a judgment yet without all the information," he said.
"We don't have enough information to give a variance," Swanson added. "If we base it on eight tables as they say, then I don't have a problem with that. ... But if we base it on 60 people, then that's different."
When it came time to vote on the variance, the ZBA's first poll resulted in two "yes" votes (Finkbeiner and MacLaren), and two "no" votes (Klettke and Swanson). Chairman H. John Ritter was on the fence.
"I think the best thing for us to do is to table this," he said. "Come back next month."
When the Niagara Marketplace & Bistro team said a four-week delay could result in a financial hardship, MacLaren and Finkbeiner asked their colleagues to reconsider.
"(The village) can't be pro-business and ... then not go along with parking," MacLaren said. "Business is fine. It brings in money; it brings in people. But they've got to have a place to park cars."
"If we don't somewhere help support businesses in an intrinsic manner ... nobody's going to be able to pay these property taxes," Finkbeiner said. "It's just the way it is."
Reluctantly, Ritter agreed to cast a vote, and said "yes" to the proposal.
Niagara Marketplace & Bistro now goes to the Village Board for final approval.
Marasco said she is hopeful the project will move forward.
"To me, it's a house of Lewiston," she said. "It's a part of our history, and it's to be well taken care of. I think their idea for a healthy food café fits well for the place."
Additional offerings at the Niagara Marketplace & Bistro would include a nutritionist, educational cooking lessons and health and wellness classes.
As of now, there is no plan for the second floor. It could be used as living quarters or an expansion of the business.
The specialty café would be the first of its kind in Lewiston, a place named among the nation's top food destinations in 2012 by Rand McNally/USA Today.