RIGA - A City Council committee stunned Riga residents and businessmen last week when it decided to prohibit summer cafes and beer gardens from opening on Livu Square, the Old Town's central pedestrian and party hub. The council's development committee reasoned that it would not be possible to work out a previously approved design project for the square's summer cafes on time. Therefore, the ubiquitous umbrella tents, a popular hang-out for both locals and tourists, would have to forego business this year.
According to the new concept, all the cafes should have the same design and blend in with the square's historic buildings. The committee said Livu Square's beer gardens lacked harmony and blocked a view of architectural landmarks.
Committee members decided that Livu Square's beer gardens and cafes would be restricted to just those annexed to permanent restaurants this summer.
The decision, coming just weeks before the tourist season and the beginning of the World Ice Hockey Championship, caught nearly everyone by surprise.
"It's a nightmare," said Vladimirs Barskovs, director of the Bauskas brewery that operated a beer tent on the square. "The decision makers are acting like they live on another planet. They are so proud of the fast GDP growth in Latvia, but they do everything to make this number go down. I doubt they understand that this will be a big profit loss for businesses, the tourist industry and for the state itself," he said.
Janis Jenzis, president of the Latvian Hotel and Restaurant Association, said the decision was "totally illogical, unprofessional and ill-considered."
"Tons of tourists will be visiting Riga during this season, especially during the hockey championship, and it's ridiculous not to let them enjoy our beer gardens and leave their money for the state and businessmen," he said.
At the end of 2005, the city asked its development department to come up with a solution for Livu Square's outdoor cafes. A competition for a the square's design concept took place in the beginning of the year, and four bidders applied, with only two projects actually submitted 's "Pieci ezeri Ltd" and "ART LV" artist Alvis Zemzaris. The jury commission selected the latter project as it seemed more successful and appropriate.
But as it turns out, the project is more costly 's 120,000 lats (170,000 euros) - and technically more difficult to implement. Finally, Deputy Mayor Andris Argalis suggested postponing the project for one year until a technical solution is prepared.
"I don't think it was the right decision to make," Sergejs Dolgopolovs, a member of the development committee, told The Baltic Times, adding that it was hard to comment on this decision since he wasn't a part of it. "I'm also not sure that the reconstruction of Livu Square will be finished in time and summer cafes and beer gardens will be back in the Old Town next summer."
It was unclear when the project would actually begin.
In the meantime, restaurant and cafe operators will have to find alternative places for their tents and barstands.
"It's a rude spit into businessmen's faces," Ugis Putnins, a board member of MS 21, a firm that ran a summer cafe in front of the Russian Drama Theatre for five years, told the daily Diena. "We would gladly follow the concept of the new design, but this ban means a huge profit loss, because the ground rent has to be paid anyway," he added.
Tourism operators were no less bitter. "It's continued stupidity on the part of bureaucrats in Riga's City Council," said Mike Johnson, director of the Patricia Tourist Office and an expat who has been working in the local tourism industry for six years.
"In the summer, everyone could say that visitors really enjoyed these outdoor cafes, but now this area on Livu Square will be empty. Even the 'allowed' ones will be overcrowded. This means that everybody will lose business," Johnson continued.
In his opinion, ridding the square of beer tents will be a negative ad for Latvia's tourism industry. "Latvia will send a clear message to people 'We don't want tourists here,' And unfortunately it's getting even worse, not better," he added.