By: Dan Macdonald
A Jacksonville entrepreneur wants to balance neighborhood safety and respect for religious tradition with a business expansion in his former neighborhood.
Matt Harris, the owner of Time Out Sports Grill, wants to open a second sports restaurant, Time Out Sports Grill Mandarin, at 10140 San Jose Blvd., the site of a Village Inn restaurant that closed in 2016.
Harris went before the Jacksonville Planning Commission on April 22 to seek a zoning waiver to serve beer, wine and liquor at the restaurant and an exception to serve it outside on a patio he proposes to add.
The 5,000-square-foot building abuts a subdivision at San Jose Boulevard and Haley Road and it is near a school and four places of worship.
The surrounding neighborhoods are home to practicing Orthodox Jews, who do not use modern conveniences like cars, cellphones and electricity during the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and on other holy days.
Because of that, there are more pedestrians in the area than in most neighborhoods.
Also, their traditional dress is black, making pedestrians hard to see at night.
Harris, 30, grew up in the neighborhood and is of the Jewish faith.
He said he is sensitive to the community and that he is a phone call away if there are problems.
“A national chain could have come in here. If there are any problems it is basically impossible to call those people,” Harris said.
At the Planning Commission meeting, 20 residents voiced opposition to the patio and the sale of liquor, citing an increase in traffic, noise, lack of parking and fear of antisemitic taunts from patio patrons.
There also were voices of support, including a real estate broker who said the new use would not hurt property values.
Hoping for a compromise
No decisions came April 22.
The commission voted 6-0 to defer the zoning requests to May 6 with the option of deferring them to May 20 if a compromise isn’t reached.
“It seems like we are really close to pleasing everybody. We are going to sit down with the leaders of those that don’t want it and see what we can do to get everybody on the same page,” Harris said.
The patio was a primary point of contention.
Several speakers said noise from sports fans watching a game would interrupt the contemplative peace sought during a religious service.
Others spoke against a proposed 3-on-3 charity basketball tournament, saying the dribbling balls on the asphalt also would be an unwanted distraction.
As for parking, the property has spaces for 77 vehicles plus two handicapped parking spaces. Zoning code provides that it needs just 50.
However, residents said the reality is that 20-25 spots will be taken by employees and that the nearby Blue Bamboo restaurant is using the vacant Village Inn property for spillover parking.
Big events shown on the sports bar’s TVs will bring in more than 50 cars, opponents said.
They fear that patrons will park in their neighborhoods.
Harris said he would call to have any customers’ cars towed that are parked in the neighborhood. While cars may be parked legally, Harris was making a point that he would be proactive to keep customers cars’ on the restaurant property.
Because the property is zoned for a restaurant, Harris could serve beer and wine without seeking approval. But cocktails bring in more revenue.
Harris said rising food prices are making alcohol sales a crucial part of the business plan.
For example, the cost of a 40-pound case of chicken wings, a sports restaurant staple, has increased from $87 to $150.
“This is how I can keep selling chicken wings for $10.99, by offsetting it with a $5, $6, $7 cocktail,” Harris said.
Rogers Towers attorney T.R. Hainline, who represents Harris in the zoning, told the Planning Commission that the restaurant owner was willing to forgo the patio.
However, the commissioners wanted to see if the patio could be moved to another location on the lot and landscaped so that customers would not be able to interact with pedestrians.
Because of COVID-19, more outdoor dining variances have been allowed than in the past, the commission said.
Ramzy Bakkar, who owns the building, said he has kept the neighborhood in mind while the building remained vacant.
He said he turned down offers to rent to those wanting to place a cannabis dispensary, a hookah lounge and a gas station on the property.
Existing zoning allows not only for an inside dining restaurant but businesses like drive-thru restaurants, car washes and convenience stores.
Commissioner Ian Brown was inclined to want a compromise.
“(Harris) may be your golden ticket. He wants to put something on that corner that you can tolerate,” Brown said to the audience.
A focus on safety
Harris offers to help pedestrians in a novel way.
He said that when he approached the religious leaders for support of the waiver, three agreed.
Rabbi Yaakor Fisch of Etz Chaim Synagogue, at 10167 San Jose Blvd., was hesitant.
Fisch was concerned a business at that corner would increase traffic and make it more dangerous for congregants walking to the synagogue to cross the often busy San Jose Boulevard.
In 2013, a woman on her way to Yom Kippur services was struck by a car and killed at that intersection.
Even before the fatal accident, Fisch worked with state and local authorities to increase pedestrian safety in that area, calling for additional crosswalks, longer crossing times from nine seconds to 44 seconds, as well as camera-activated crossing lights so no one has to touch the button.
Harris is offering to hire a crossing guard, at his expense, to help people cross that intersection before and after services.
“I am being pragmatic. While I am not thrilled that a sports bar is coming in and bringing a lot of traffic to the community, I have to be realistic. There is going to be some establishment going up regardless at some point,” Fisch said.
Harris said the cost will be expensive but it will pay off.
“I’ll probably have to pay thousands of dollars a year. But we want to be that local restaurant where people can come and hang around and watch sports,” he said.