• A 1949 diner for Montpelier?
     | February 28,2008
    Jesse Schloff/Times Argus

    An empty lot between Splash! health and beauty store and Brooks pharmacy, across from the Montpelier Fire Station on Main Street, may become the home of a classic diner being transported from Pennsylvannia. The diner is shown at bottom.

    It's been a bumpy ride so far for Jeff Jacobs and his efforts to wheel a classic 1949 diner car into downtown Montpelier.

    Bumpy, but still on course.

    If all goes right, and it's a big if at this point, says Kevin Casey of the Jacobs-owned Montpelier Property Management, a vintage diner could be up and running this fall, just a bottle-cap's throw from Charlie-O's.

    "We're trying to bring a piece of Americana and to add a little character to downtown. Stuff like this just isn't done anymore, says Casey. "The nice thing is that we're getting a lot of positive feedback from the community, and that is definitely helpful."

    In addition to community support, Jacobs has several things going for him:

  • He picked an ideal location: 66 Main Street, a lot he owns and that has been vacant since the structure that was once home to Play It Again Sam burned in May 2003. "It's really funny because when I was in Montpelier last year," says diner guru Randy Garbin, who publishes Roadside, an online publication about diners and diner culture, "I remember walking past that lot going, 'This would be a perfect spot for a diner, never thinking in a million years that one would actually be there.'"

  • Jacobs has the unit picked out already: The former Sunset Diner, a vintage 1949 diner car now sitting empty in Jim Thorpe, Pa. "It's in really good condition, a really a beautiful unit," says Garbin. "It's very colorful and a really nice well-preserved interior."

  • Jacobs has at least four individuals interested in leasing the diner from him and running it: "We have people who have the resources and have expressed an interest in running it," says Casey.

    But Jacobs also has a big problem.

    The site, an empty lot framed with concrete blocks and that last year became a prime gathering spot for panhandlers, is below the base flood elevation.

    Under Federal Emergency Management Agency's Flood Plain Insurance Program, a new building in a flood plain must be raised above base flood elevation. Forget that this is a 1949 structure. Once it is removed from its Pennsylvania site, trucked to Montpelier and placed on a foundation, it is considered a new structure.

    "The elevation of the site is 526 feet (above sea level), and it has to be at least 530 feet to be above the base floor elevation," says Clancy DeSmet, Montpelier's new planning and zoning administrator. "(The project) can continue, but they just can't get flood insurance. He could do it, but he couldn't get a tenant to take over a business that wouldn't have flood insurance."

    There's more at risk than tenants, however, as Casey found out when he met with Environmental Analyst Rebecca Pfeiffer of the state's Flood Plain Management Section.

    FEMA is one tough customer. Should Jacobs continue with his project and not raise the structure by the necessary four feet, the city could lose its low NFIP insurance rates. Worse yet, Montpelier could lose federal disaster assistance funds should Montpelier flood again.

    Jacobs, says Casey, has two options at this point if he wants to continue with his diner idea: Survey the spot, at his expense, and hope that it is actually higher than 526 feet, or elevate the diner by four feet.

    An elevated diner raises aesthetic and monetary concerns.

    "When you raise it up four feet, it looks out of place," Casey says. Garbin agrees: "They are not meant to be up that high. When you consider the average height of a person is about 5-8, your head is going to be where the bottom of the door is. It's more common for a diner to be two to two-and- a-half feet high."

    But in FEMA's and the city's eyes, it's a diner four feet off the ground or no diner at all.

    Casey and Jacobs understand the city's position. "The planning department has been great. There's a lot of excitement over there about it. They like the idea. It's just that everybody's hands are tied," says Casey.

    Although an elevated diner with its additional constriction costs is not what Jacobs had envisioned when he began the diner project, it has not meant the end of the project.

    "I could envision it could look cool," says Casey, "but it's just whether or not it would be cost prohibitive."

    What Casey envisions is a handicap-accessible platform that is the size of the lot essentially a deck with outdoor seating during the summer.

    DeSmet hopes Jacobs will pursue other design options and that the diner project will continue through the city's design review process.

    "They agreed to table the project (rather than shelve it) and talk to an engineer and architect. Theoretically, the project can work; it's very doable. It would be a shame if they go this far and didn't try to come up with some creative solutions."

    DeSmet says the city has offered Jacobs a few of its own solutions, including creative landscaping and extending the diner's stainless steel siding to hide the elevated foundation wall. "We were just trying to help Montpelier Property come up with different ways to look at it so that it could happen," he says.

    Whether it's a diner, a parking or lot or a building, Montpelier City Council member Jim Sheridan hopes something happens to the 66 Main St. parcel.

    "I don't know if I really care what goes there as long as we can get something to at least clean it up so that it doesn't become just blocks that people sit on and beg for money."

    Sheridan says he has no strong feelings one way or another about a diner but that it would be bringing back a little nostalgic past.
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