“Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded,” famed Yankee Yogi Berra was reputed to have said of a certain popular restaurant.
With Bull City Burger and Brewery set to debut in a week's time, and a new beer garden expected to open in the Central Park area in the spring, Durham’s once-desolate downtown is becoming more and more of a dining and drinking destination. That’s not even factoring in plans for developing Five Points, which could boast three new eateries by the close of 2012.
But is Durham approaching the point where addition becomes subtraction? Might Berra’s paradox soon become a fitting epitaph for Bill Kalkhof’s favorite district?
So wondered this correspondent, who proceeded to pitch a pair of hypotheses to some central city spokespeople.
The first scenario will ring a bell with most anyone who’s ever tried to visit Manhattan by automobile. Will downtown development draw so many people that parking becomes a major hassle? (You may identify with this if you’ve ever sought a spot for your car near Rigsbee and Geer when Fullsteam and Motorco are both pulling large crowds.)
The second scenario: Could so many businesses — especially restaurants and bars — open in Durham’s core that there simply aren’t enough customers to go around?
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The verdict on Berra’s famous dis boiled down to this: while it might one day apply to Durham’s downtown, that day does not appear to be anywhere sight. And if anything, some downtown boosters might welcome the advent of parking problems.
Kalkhof, the president of Downtown Durham, actually chuckled when Bull City Rising asked about space for cars. “It’s nice to have a problem [be] that we have to search for parking to get the project done, because that was not the case 10, 12 years ago,” he explained.
He said the city may budget some money for a comprehensive downtown parking study, the first since the mid-aughts. Kalkhof also noted that downtown developers are working collaboratively to avert problems; take, for example, G3 Durham arranging to use the SouthBank lot for after-hours valet parking for Five Points visitors.
Seth Gross, who intends to open the new Bull City Burger and Brewery on March 25, said acquaintances unfamiliar with downtown frequently ask him where they can stow their car when they visit his locally oriented bar and eatery.
“I try to assure them given the — the four parking decks around us, the street parking, how it’s free [of charge] after 7 o’clock — I think all of that adds up to it’s not going to be as bad as people think,” Gross said.
If anything, a parking crunch can be a healthy sign, others said.
“In a bustling downtown, parking is a good problem,” declared Kevin Dick, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “So I think that we are certainly going to do what we need to do to plan accordingly, working with the various [city] departments and the private sector to, to offset parking problems as much as possible.
“But the fact is that downtown is an urban environment, and in an urban environment ... you shouldn’t have the same parking expectations as one would have in a suburban environment. So we expect people to walk more. We expect people to bike more.”
Plus, Dick added, the Bull City Connector bus service enables people to get downtown without driving.
Kelli Cotter, co-owner of Toast, also called the Connector an asset. “It seems like there’s a good option for when there is a harder parking situation, like the daytime,” she said.
“Having people wandering around looking for parking spaces in downtown and not being able to find them would be the highest-class problem downtown could have right now,” joked architect Scott Harmon, who both works and develops properties in the city center. “It means that we’re doing something right. [But] we’re a long way from that.”
His partners in redeveloping 102 Morris Street in the Five Points district “obviously don’t have concerns about this either, or they ... would not have committed to the degree that they have.”
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Neither Harmon nor his partners nor those interviewed for this story seem worried about so many businesses opening downtown that there aren’t enough customers to go around.
“There’s a number somewhere that’s too big, and I understand that,” Harmon said. But Durham is fertile ground for the restaurant industry, and downtown in particular is an excellent spot to plant new food and drink ventures, he believes.
“You come down here on a night when the DPAC [Durham Performing Arts Center] is full, you can’t find a place to eat,” Harmon said. “Like, every restaurant that is open is full. It’s impossible to get in, say, between 5 and 8 p.m. at these places...
“Can a restaurant come and open its doors and survive if they’re not providing a good quality experience? No. But that’s the way it should be.”
Cotter concedes that she’s thought about downtown reaching a saturation point given the finite number of people who work, live or visit the downtown area.
But she believes downtown growth will remain a good thing — in keeping with her experience since Toast opened three years ago as what was then one of downtown’s few eateries.
“Now with more businesses and bars open downtown, there’s more people downtown, more people around,” she said. “Especially with DPAC. So I’m hoping that there, that there will be enough to go around.”
Next year, Toast could have much more company in the form of a large multilevel restaurant at 108 Morris and a bakery and pizzeria at 102 Morris, which is now both highly visible and notably vacant. But Cotter’s not worried.
“That building needs to be filled in for sure,” she said. “I mean it’s just sitting there empty. So we’re happy to have neighbors, even if they are competition, in hopes that it, it just helps everybody — makes this area just a more vibrant area that you want to go to.”
Gross also believes that company will be good for business.
“I’m a big advocate of restaurant rows,” he said. “You put one restaurant on a corner, it does OK. And you have four more join them and then suddenly, it’s a restaurant district, and that’s a good thing, and it brings more people down.”
Downtown is “still on the growth curve,” Gross added, saying: “If there were 15 burger joints downtown, that’s a different story. But right now, it’s all about us banding together to get people to come downtown — to get people to come not just from Durham but from Chapel Hill, from Cary, from Raleigh. And I think it’s a good thing.”
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In fact, Gross believes, there are plenty of people both inside and outside of the Bull City who have yet to discover the downtown renaissance.
The restaurateur said that his favorite thing to emerge from his new restaurant’s recently concluded Golden Bull contest was the reaction of a pair of older lifelong Durham residents who hadn’t been downtown in years.
“They said thank you so much for doing this contest,” Gross recalled. “You made us walk around downtown trying to find these clues. We had no idea what was going on, and you’ve brought us back downtown again. We’re so excited to go downtown and start eating.”
Will that prove to be the wisdom of the crowds? Stick around, Durhamites. The full story has yet to be told.
Or as a certain Baseball Hall of Famer might have said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”