“Downtown starts with a restaurant scene.”
That’s what Mayor David Belle Isle told me this week when I sat down to interview him one morning over coffee at Mugs on Milton. Downtown was on my mind, as it is for many. Next week I hope to write more on his comments regarding the City Center project. But a lot of downtown hinges on restaurants. It also dovetails nicely into this Friday column.
We’ve watched with pleasure the growth of Alpharetta’s downtown restaurant scene over the years. But the rapid growth is starting to concern me. By my count there are 18 restaurants within the business district of downtown. The proposed City Center project from MidCity Partners would add eight restaurants. The Alpharetta Lofts project has two restaurants, one with an announced tenant of Chow Baby. A project adjacent to that includes two restaurant locations.
So if you’re keeping score at home, that’s 18 open now plus 12 proposed in new projects for a total of 30 restaurants. If you want to keep going we can speculate on a few other restaurant conversion projects. I’ve heard rumors that the Kell Building, former home to the Blind Murphy growler store, could see a restaurant conversion. There are a number of old homes along Roswell and Old Roswell Streets that could be candidates too.
Mayor Belle Isle is keep score as well. He’s touting that downtown has grown from two to twelve restaurants during his tenure as mayor. It’s been more than that on both ends of the measure. But is it too much too fast?
The amount of restaurant space relative to retail, office or residential in downtown far exceeds that of Avalon or any other similar project. Is it sustainable? Is there a saturation point of restaurants downtown such that exceeding it results in vacancies? And do these vacancies happen in front of city hall or on the town green?
To Mayor Belle Isle it’s all about reaching a critical mass, and we’re not there yet by his estimation. His goal is to make downtown the destination. Rather than leave your home with one particular restaurant in mind, he wants you to drive to downtown then have the “honey, where do you want to eat” conversation.
He also envisions multiple concepts from the same restauranteurs, something that’s started with the Sedgwicks with Pure Taqueria and Made Kitchen and Cocktails. Perhaps F&H could add a second concept to complement Salt Factory.
“We’ve been a catalyst for a lot of it,” Belle Isle said when I asked him how involved the city has been recruiting restaurants. “First there was the promise of downtown that’s not yet here. Then special events got people introduced to downtown. Next, Foodtruck Alley got people in the habit of going downtown. It’s proven to restaurants there is demand and that we can do this. These restaurants have come because there is demand.”
But the city’s been more involved than the mayor will admit. Economic development staff have been knocking on restaurant doors in Roswell for a few years now, selling the vision and encouraging expansion our way. And city grant money exists for development downtown. There are city incentive dollars for everything from building improvements to facade changes, awnings and even street furniture. It’s only available downtown.
But it’s been a nice ride thus far and Mayor Belle Isle can be justifiably proud of the restaurant scene in downtown today. But the question I pose is this – when do we reach that critical mass for restaurants downtown? Are we there now? Have we crossed it? Will City Center push us past that saturation point where it all becomes unsustainable? Or are Alpharetta gastronomes hungry enough to keep this restaurant train chugging down the tracks for years to come?