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Downtown Durham and the wisdom of the crowds: When does more become too much?

“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? 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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.” 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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.” 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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.” 

Comments

Cormoran

The problem is that some people think that they are at a chain store in a strip mall, and pretend to park at the door of the place they are going to eat in. If you are not scared of walking two or three blocks I've never had problems parking downtown.

There could be some signs though, pointing to the large parking lots and parking decks for the people who do not know where they are.

Kelly

Maybe we can bring Taste of Durham back downtown where it belongs? Give people a reason to come downtown to discover all the new restaurants opening there?

jonn

I'm surprised that you're really considering this expansion of businesses downtown as a problem. Here's my opinion...

- We are nowhere near an amount of too many businesses. Look at the downtowns of Asheville, Wilmington, Richmond, and charleston. Way more dense and active. Of course some of those have tourism aspects..however so would we if we created an attractive vibrant downtown. People from the region would continue to stream in for visits (just like they do for Bulls games and DPAC shows)

- Yes, parking will be more of an issue. But people who live close by need to walk, bike and take the bus more. I live .75 miles from downtown and watch my neighbors drive to work and entertainment every single day. We don't have an urban mentality in that sense.

- Also, there are many underutilized parking decks. Visitors need to know that they may need to park in a deck and then actually need to walk a few more blocks to their destination. That's totally acceptable.

Matt Dudek

It would be great to see more apartment buildings come online soon to provide more customers for downtown, and more people within walking distance. The Chesterfield will hopefully open soon-ish, and Morris Ridge is planned, but does it have a start date?

Seth Vidal

The bike parking situation in downtown is in pretty good shape.

Thanks to Dale Mckeel for making sure there are bunches of racks.

Steve Graff

I agree that parking isn't a problem, but it can be a perceived problem because of the lack of on-street parking. We do need to install directional signs that point towards the various available parking decks.

I'd also like to see the parking decks accept payment options beyond cash and check (check? Who the hell pays with checks anymore?). I found myself in the embarrassing situation of parking in a parking structure, then finding that I had no cash in my wallet. I ended up scrounging up 85 cents to give to the parking attendant to pay my $1 parking toll, which she kindly accepted as payment in full. Accepting debit cards would seem to be a good idea.

Rob Gillespie

Re: Parking decks after hours

Haven't all four decks starting charging after hours now? There's a convenient little credit-card machine at the exit of each. The last time I was in the Durham Centre garage, we had to pay $3 to exit after hours.

jonn

Raleigh's big decks are free on weekend nights. Smart move I think.

eah919

The Bull City Connector definitely has the potential to be an extremely convenient and valuable way to get to and from downtown.

I say 'potential', because my own experience with it has been a little uneven at this point. I personally think that either 1) the timing of the busses needs to be more predicatable (i.e., it leaves the terminals and Durham Station when it is supposed to), or 2) the headways need to get shorter, so the schedule doesn't matter as much. (Preferably both).

I, for one, think we're nowhere near saturation on food options downtown, and getting the Connector to run a little more reliably would get me down there even more frequently.

Eric Heidt


JG

Really, parking is not a problem.

Every time, I try to go downtown, I always find a parking space.

Look at Chapel Hill/Carborro, does the lack of parking spaces make the downtowns of the two communities unwelcoming? No, to the contrary. People love going out over there. People love it so much that they are keeping adding new high rises on Franklin St.

Chuck Watts

Kevin,

Gotta say . . . YOGI BERRA??? . . . he wan't even a smart baseball player . . . certainly no philosopher of urban development. Oh . . . maybe you were just being facetious.

The problem is two fold. First, DDI & the Parrish Street Advocacy Group & the City's OEWD promoted a study by a consultant, of which I know that you are aware, entitled Downtown City Center District -- Creating an Environment for Retail that really provides some well researched and knowledgeable information on the Yogi Berraism and show why its pretty simple minded, as you would expect. So I worry that folks haven't taken advantage of that information.

The other problem is that I have heard at least one city council member echo the same sort of simple minded concern. Most of the comments here however seem to echo the more informed perspective that was offered by the study so maybe it is more well received than I thought.

One of the most straight forward points of the study showed that we don't have enough office and residential downtown yet to support most categories of retail. It is part of why the hotel project would be great for downtown, but Food and beverage is a very important category of development for downtown because that category tends to have a wider trade area -- folks will drive into the area for food, particularly a unique quality food establishment like what's be popping up in downtown, than they will for most types of retail. Further, this trade area is even broader where there is a cluster of food and beverage establishments. So this stage in the development of downtown is key to us getting to the point where more folks live or work downtown. When that happens we are likely to see more diversity in the composition of retail in downtown.

The other thing that the study really highlights that folks need to read is the history of how we got a downtown that has only 33% of its retail space being used as retail. That story is all about public policy errors. We need to learn from those errors and avoid them going forward. The Yogi worry would be one to avoid.

Basically, we need density downtown, we need transit options and biking options to support that density, we need rail transit to orient that density toward sustainable growth and the food & beverage sector's growth and development is a phase of that transition. Of course, there is plenty to work on as we move in that direction but from a broad perspective these new restaurants are great additions and we should all be hoping to see more.

Kelly

Are there 24-hour security guards in decks and security cameras in elevators? If not, there should be. Maybe there could be some centralized downtown "parking escort" or delivery services carts that will escort people to parking decks (golf carts maybe--like the little carts driving between terminals in airports). I won't park in a parking deck after dark--unless I'm going to an event where there's lots of traffic in the deck--a scheduled performance at the Carolina or something--so I know there will be lots of traffic in the deck when I'm coming and going. Its not a money issue--its a safety issue. Maybe this is more of a gender issue--although I know that it isn't just women attacked in parking garages.

Jonathan Parker

Downtown Durham is nowhere close to having a parking problem. The parking "issue" is all perception and zero reality, a byproduct of the suburban-oriented mentality of most residents in Durham and, truth be told, most of the country. 'There's not enough parking in Downtown Durham' roughly translates to 'there's not a "free" suburban style parking lot in front of my destination.' Furthermore, most (all?) of the on-street parking downtown is hourly parking and not priced, so much of the parking is effectively free and poorly managed, even while the decks aren't. This is not an efficient way to manage parking because people (often the employees of the retail stores) will always choose the more convenient, "free" on-street spaces to avoid paying for parking in the decks (which cost a pretty penny to build), and creates an incentive for violators who simply move their cars around to avoid the 2/3-hour limits, and taking up the most valuable urban street spaces for short term visitors who want to patronize the local storefront shops, which is the intent of on-street parking in the first place.

At some point (and we're probably getting closer), the on-street parking will become crowded as more local retail shops open up and increase activity in the core, and some businesses will complain that not enough on-street spaces are being freed up for patrons. Then the city will have to consider pricing--thereby freeing up those most valuable spaces--and in so doing creating a strong economic incentive for the long term/all-day violators to park in the decks, where they should be parking in the first place. Of course, this idea will initially prove unpopular in some quarters, as some (not all) businesses and residents will complain that eliminating "free" parking will kill downtown, but eventually, pricing will be implemented (like pretty much every other popular urban area in the world), and provided the price fits the market demand, it will work as intended and downtown will continue to thrive.

Downtowns and walkable urban areas like Durham all across the country are experiencing a renaissance because more and more people are tired of the suburban experience and want to be a part of places that are diverse, vibrant, and unique. We need to understand that the downtown core, Ninth Street, Brightleaf, and American Tobacco are special, and in increasingly high demand. Why? Precisely because they offer a completely different experience than the suburbs. So let's not continue the failed model of trying to "suburbanize" our great urban places, when that's not what makes them successful, nor what people want.

clif

jesus j. parker, you expect people to read that?

socrates just ordered a second shot of hemlock.

huge ugly parking decks all over. the idea that parking is limited a condemnation of the accommodation of cars, and of the aesthetic imperative of civilization.

Danny S

Right on, Chuck Watts. More restaurants are exactly what we need downtown at this stage.

Here's a link to the study he mentioned
http://www.ci.durham.nc.us/departments/eed/pdf/city_center_retail_report.pdf

Jonathan Parker

^^ What can I say, brevity isn't always my strong suit. :-)

Toby

Three things:

1) "A Taste of Durham" already IS downtown, in the form of Toast, Beyu Caffe, Piedmont, Revolution, Dos Perros, etc., etc. Come on down!

2) I echo the kudos to Dale McKeel for adding more bike racks. Word has it that he has several dozen more racks awaiting sites to install them. If you know of a good spot for one, drop him an email message! Or just post a comment here -- I'm pretty sure Dale reads BCR regularly.

3) Ummmm... I love Durham too, but does this post qualify as a bit of a "humble brag"?: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Humble%20Brag

Doug Roach

Street cars.

Expensive?
Probably.
Efficient for the future?
No doubt.

Freddie

It would be nice to see trollies around downtown!!! You can just park in any of the decks and a trolly is guaranteed to pick you up soon after...Just charge a buck and they can just stay in the downtown area! They would do very well in special events...

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