As the tables turn 

You say you want to live downtown? Where would you eat? Where would you get your morning coffee? Your groceries? And where would you go after work?

The focus here is not on the prototypical weekend warrior “overpass and tunnel” crowd, suburbanites looking for a ballgame and some flaming cheese, an upscale anniversary dinner and a show, or some escapism via a high-octane nightclub experience.

No, if you were to live in the fertile yet sparsely populated enclaves of downtown Detroit, what, exactly, would that mean? And how it would it compare to a similar experience in other cities?

Let’s consider restaurants and cafés, a staple of any thriving urban tapestry. While Greektown is already home to many fine eateries that are frequented by locals and tourists alike, the focus here is on other potential downtown haunts.

When Comerica Park opened in the spring of 2000, the stadium was touted as a veritable Johnny Appleseed of bars and eateries, certain to germinate the downtown neighborhood with new life and pave the way for urban homesteaders to move into previously abandoned neighborhoods. Ford Field and Compuware have been lauded in similar fashion.

Rumors of new downtown restaurants have flown hither and yon for years, yet precious little has actually been completed (and, in some cases such as the Rivertown district, we’ve seen serious regression).

Tom’s Oyster Bar opened a thriving branch and is now expanding into the former print shop next door. Over on Woodward, Maverick’s, after languishing since April in liquor license limbo, has finally been given the green light to dispense alcoholic libations.

And then there are the less tangible projects. Como’s was once going into Tall-Eez shoe store. The Post on Broadway was slated to open in the fall of 2000, then the fall of 2002. Joe Muer’s Grill was rumored to be going into Compuware, and Andiamo was sniffing around. The Renaissance Center and its flashy Winter Garden have failed to land even one out of the intended four high-profile restaurants for its space.

While those projects have failed to materialize, several smaller-scale projects are moving forward and, in some cases, thriving.

Small Plates, which opened in early December at 1521 Broadway, is one example of that. But can it sustain its opening-business boom? Some believe that, barring some major demographic shifts, the success of new downtown restaurants will be a hit-and-miss proposition.

Jerry McVety, a Bloomfield Hills food-service consultant, believes Detroit simply needs more downtown residents before it can hope to replicate Chicago’s bottomless well of urban eateries — or even those of Motown’s own suburbs.

“The lack of foot traffic after 5 p.m. is definitely a problem in downtown Detroit,” McVety says.

The crux is “turns” — how many times a seat is filled in a restaurant on a daily basis. In general, he reports that Detroit dining spots do about one turn a day, and the primary means to improve on that is to get more residents downtown.

Jimmy Schmidt of the Rattlesnake Club concurs, pointing to a failed Santa Monica pedestrian mall which has rebounded on the strength of mixed-use residential on top, offices above, a couple of restaurants and retail on the ground floor.

“That’s the look of the more vibrant Euro cities,” Schmidt says. “New York has tall offices and tall apartment buildings existing relatively near each other. Turns of tables is where the dollars are at. Detroit doesn’t turn tables, so you need to pull in a lot of revenue to stay in business. The combination of retail draw, professional and residential traffic feeds itself.”

McVety says the city should do some master planning, identify a district, identify the demographics and a target audience, and develop a vision. Until such master planning occurs, however, McVety believes that downtown will continue to see hit-and-miss, disjointed projects.

An important aspect of that planning vision must include retail, he adds, as it contributes a complementary component to the streetscape while promoting foot traffic. Although retail remains an elusive concept downtown (and the subject of another column), antique stores, he notes, have been a very successful complement to restaurants in other areas (see Birmingham and Royal Oak), and provide a draw for people to get out of their cars and walk the streets.

At Small Plates, co-owner Todd Stern sees a downtown resurgent, with repeat customers. The number of potential “turns” has forced the restaurant to expand into its lower level, with an additional 65-seat dining area as well as a bar/lounge opening within six months. Stern believes that “all of the elements, including residential, are falling into place” within five blocks of his establishment.

Perhaps this is exactly the district that McVety says Detroit needs. While some may point to Harmonie Park as just such a district, the recent closure of Coaches Corner, as well as the myriad restaurants and bars that have gone into the space currently occupied by Cayenne, make it unclear whether Harmonie Park can sustain itself in a vacuum (and lend credence to McVety’s theory).

To the west, however, where Small Plates is turning tables, and loft developments are clustering, one can find sporadic signs of life. The Motor City Café at the back end of 2 John R, and operating out of a window from a space no larger than an elevator car, is running a brisk takeout and delivery business. In the front of that building, the sushi/techno bar Oslo, in the works since 1999, is finally falling into place, with a probable opening this spring.

A block and a half away, in the shadows of the multimillion-dollar renovation of the downtown library, transplanted Alabama chemist Lee Padgett is opening Café de Troit in April, restoring the ground floor space to its 1919 condition, and featuring fabulous coffees and overstuffed chairs (rescued from the old St. Regis Hotel) in which to relax. Next door is the 10-unit Library Lofts building. Over on Broadway in the Harvard Square Building, a brewpub is supposedly setting up shop.

In the epicenter of all of this, the groundbreaking for the $36 million, five-story downtown YMCA is set for next summer. Wow. Libraries, gyms, sushi bars, cafés, brewpubs, restaurants, lofts ... sounds like the foundation for a real downtown district.

While some might arch a disparaging eyebrow at such developments as containing the unmistakable whiff of elitism and gentrification, others would counter that downtown Detroit, at this juncture, cannot afford to be choosy in luring investment (see: casinos).

Now, about that retail. ...

Casey Coston writes about development in Detroit. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com

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