Park benches sit under a mural of the Ellicott City bridge along one side of an alleyway on Ellicott City’s Main Street. The alley, surrounded by Phoenix Upper Main, measures about 1,669 square feet. On the other side of the alley are folding tables and chairs, where, when the weather allows, the restaurant’s customers can enjoy food and drinks.
Phoenix Upper Main owner Mark Hemmis would like to make the alley dining space more permanent, adding real tables and chairs and some potted plants, too. He has asked the Howard County Council to allow him to purchase the alley. The council is expected to vote on the request at its next meeting, Feb. 7.
Hemmis was featured on a May 2020 television episode of Gordon Ramsay’s “24 Hours to Hell and Back” during which Phoenix Emporium and Ellicott Mills Brewing Company were merged to create Phoenix Upper Main.
At the time, Hemmis needed to move the Phoenix Emporium after the county announced a plan to demolish it and other businesses along Main Street as part of a flood mitigation plan. The Phoenix Emporium building, at the foot of Main Street, had withstood deadly floods in July 2016 and May 2018.
During a Howard County Council legislative public hearing on Jan. 19, Hemmis told officials about his desire to purchase the alley to create a permanent outdoor dining area for his restaurant at 8308 Main St., Ellicott City.
“It is a wonderful asset,” said Hemmis, a few days after the meeting. “Making this permanent will make it even nicer. Outdoor dining is a fantastic visual.”
Outdoor dining also became a lifesaver for many restaurants as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Temporary permits and exceptions were issued countywide to allow outdoor dining in parking lots, on sidewalks and in alleys. Many patrons still prefer eating outside, Hemmis said.
“There is still an enormous demand for outdoor dining opportunities,” Hemmis said. “It encourages people to walk through town.”
Emily Iacchei, chief of Howard County’s Real Estate Services Division, testified in support of the sale to Hemmis for the appraised value of $9,666 plus $2,950 for reimbursement of the assessment.
During the Jan. 19 hearing, Council member Liz Walsh, a Democrat who represents District 1, which includes Ellicott City, asked if the county is already allowing Hemmis to use the property for outdoor dining, why does he need to purchase it?
“It is public space,” Walsh said. “It is one of the main safety passages for emergencies. Why is this OK?”
During the council’s work session on Monday, Walsh pointed out the need for the alley to remain open until the Ellicott City Safe and Sound flood mitigation plan is finished, particularly the North End tunnel, as this serves as an escape route from flood waters.
“Last year, there were multiple storm, flood warnings and watches that went through town. During all of them, all furniture was removed from the courtyard,” Hemmis said at the work session. “We have no interest in contributing to a problem. We don’t want debris floating, one of the larger problems of the flood issue.”
Hemmis informed the council during the work session that the property deed prevents anything from being built there and also requires a 7-foot easement, wide enough for two wheelchairs side-by-side to both turn 180 degrees, and a 10-foot by 10-foot easement for utilities.
Grace Kubofcik of Ellicott City, a resident who opposed the sale of the property, said at the public hearing that the alley was “the one place” for those who are disabled to “comfortably move from a parking lot to both sides of Main Street” because of the crosswalk located there. She also expressed concerns about public safety in the event of bad weather.
“I’ve lived here 50 years and have seen eateries come and go,” Kubofcik said afterward. “Right now, it is a restaurant. It could be something else next.”
Howard County Times: Top stories
Many neighboring restaurant owners spoke in favor of the sale at the public hearing, including the owners of Little Market Café, Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant and La Palapa Grill and Cantina, as did Main Street businesses Sweet Elizabeth Jane and Park Ridge Trading Company.
“Seeing how that courtyard parcel was transformed by the Phoenix team not only for the continued success of their operations but the enjoyment by everybody that sat there, was exactly the positive change this community needs,” said Angie Tersiguel, owner of Tersiguel’s. “The last five years have done nothing but demand that we rise above and with just that alone, this parcel should be moved to the Phoenix.”
Simon Cortez, owner of La Palapa, located across the street from the Phoenix, said at the public hearing that the Phoenix is “an anchor” on Main Street and “deserves to take ownership” of the area.
“Mark is definitely a pillar in our community, and I look forward to them to continue to operate and be successful there,” Cortez said.
Walsh said she would love to see the businesses along Main Street thrive, and while she enjoys outdoor dining, she firmly believes that the property should remain in county hands at least until after the Safe and Sound Plan is complete.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball has said that he wants to fully implement the Safe and Sound flood plan by 2025, but no timeline has been confirmed.
“I think it is a wonderful use of that public space, it is just issue of who retains ownership that I worry about,” Walsh said Monday.