Downtown restaurant growth, reaching critical mass or saturation?

“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?

7 Responses to “Downtown restaurant growth, reaching critical mass or saturation?”

  1. Sewducky May 15, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    When there’s a lot of restaurants in a small area, A factor is parking and traffic patterns from searching for parking. It looks like there’ll be some parking (I haven’t kept track just remember seeing a pretty lot), but it’s a factor to consider when you talk about restaurant saturation.

    I look forward to exploring downtown again. I’m very unfamiliar with alpharetta downtown, because I’m cheap, a parking wimp, and my commute misses it. But, the changes seem interesting.

  2. Raj May 16, 2015 at 3:04 am #

    I applaud this focus on restaurants. While retail is good, in the end it is just an occasional visit to buy things one needs, and I will drive out of my many miles to find a good deal. On the other hand I have to eat multiple times a day, and I usually won’t drive miles and miles, if I am already hungry, and not in the mood to cook. So a good local restaurant is treasure to have. If you study truly walkable cities, like New York, San Francisco and Paris, you will see a similarly high concentration of eateries, cafes, and small food shops at every street corner. There are like a dozen Ray’s Pizzerias in each New York borough, while Alpharetta has but one.

  3. Jan May 16, 2015 at 5:23 pm #

    You bring up great points. The restaurant growth is sustainable only if Alpharetta can manage to offer more in the way of daily, diversified entertainment. I’d love to see us bring something like a math & science museum such as Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC. Something along that line would attract the necessary population flow required to sustain the retail & restaurant expansion. Alpharetta would do best to focus on its “technology” brand spin and attract unique businesses that would be of interest to innovators and creators.

  4. Shawn D. May 16, 2015 at 10:08 pm #

    As it is, I like the restaurant density and selection in downtown Alpharetta. If it’s doubled in an Avalon-like atmosphere, that will not increase my desire to go there, but decrease it significantly.

    I do not want to have city hall obscured by shops & apartments, do not want to deal with parking (do not deny that those issues will be coming, and I do not trust attendants to drive/park my manual-transmission cars), and do not want to hang out in a faked atmosphere.

    Apparently, the Mayor and city council want Alpharetta to be Avalon-like from the namesake, down Thompson street, all the way across Highway 9. Blech!

    - Shawn

  5. Julie May 17, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    There is no question that it is good and exciting to have some great restaurants in downtown Alpharetta. Remember: Alpharetta serves as a go-to for Milton residents and even into Forsyth and Cherokee as well.

  6. Travis Allen May 21, 2015 at 8:13 am #

    I’m in agreement with Shawn.

    Raj – not sure where you eat, but there are too many pizza places around here to count.

  7. Cool Papa Bell May 22, 2015 at 9:08 am #

    Ray’s Pizzeria? Seriously? I’d have to think if it is even in the top 20 in the immediate area. We’d be just as well with no Ray’s.

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