by Jeff Sykes

Restaurant project in limbo until traffic plan settled | @jeffreysykes

A restaurant project to be located next to Spring Garden Street near the Downtown Greenway hit a roadblock last week when members of the Greensboro Planning Board failed to sign off on a street closure that the project’s developer said is critical to her plans.

Lee Comer, owner of the popular Iron Hen Café, announced plans for a multiplex restaurant facility to much fanfare in August. Announced plans included two restaurants, a bakery, an event space and a base for Comer’s catering service. Located in a 29,800 square foot warehouse at 509 South Edgeworth Street, the project was celebrated for its location next to the section of the Downtown Greenway that runs from Spring Garden Street to Lee Street.

But Comer, who is developing the project herself with the help of a mentor, told members of the planning board that the project has taken several frustrating turns and handed her more than a few surprises.

One of which is that the building sits right at the edge of the property line, leaving no room for a new entrance for the facility.

“It was not disclosed to us,” Comer said. “We were completely unaware of it until we did our own survey. The existing survey that we received when we got this building under contract did not indicate that.”

Plans require a sizable landing, elevated five feet from the street, to bring people to the building’s entrance, Comer said. A required handicap ramp, running 53-feet in each direction from the main entrance, would have a larger footprint than is available.

“If we did that, it’s going to take them up to the curb,” Comer said. “At the very least it takes them to the curb and then there is a road. That’s just not going to work. It’s not going to work for me or anyone else who is trying to put a business in that building.”

Comer asked city planners to consider closing the 230 feet of South Edgeworth Street that runs from Spring Garden Street to the end of Eugene Court, a small back street framed by a collection of warehouses and newer office buildings for attorneys, engineers and community service agencies.

The Greensboro Department of Transportation’s Technical Review Committee signed off on the plan, asking only that Comer provide a utility easement for existing service lines and that she construct a sizable turnaround at the end of Eugene Court, just at the entry to her proposed parking lot.

“We think it’s the only way to gain enough parking to make this project feasible, not just for us, but for the future and anyone who came into this building if something happens to make my business go south or if it’s just not viable for us,” Comer said. “We can’t figure out how to get enough parking without closing the street. It’s a very low density trafficked street as it is. I can’t imagine anyone who would not go for it.”

Closing the street would give her the room needed to build the entrance to her parking lot from Eugene Court, a sidewalk coming in from Spring Garden Street and extend the necessary parking area. Currently a gravel lot across South Edgeworth Street, that parcel is part of her plans.

The far edge of that parcel runs parallel to the entrance to the Downtown Greenway. A driveway there gives access to a cell phone tower. That area used to be the site of one of the city’s largest homeless camps until the property owner suddenly decided this spring that he no longer could tolerate the camp, and city officials worked to move the homeless out of the area. Remnants of camp debris can still be seen piled near the base of the cell tower.

Comer said she had hoped to have the primary entrance to her multiplex come in from Eugene Court, but that several different people had recently suggested she add an entrance-only access point at Spring Garden Street to be aligned with the greenway entrance.

Anticipating the complaints from business owners along Eugene Court, who later expressed displeasure at losing access to Spring Garden Street, board members asked GDOT’s David Ortega why the Spring Garden Street access would be entrance only.

Ortega said that traffic planners wanted to enhance the greenway connectivity and promote pedestrian and bicycle usage in that area. By limiting two-way traffic, that goal could be achieved, he said.

“By opening up the driveway [to two-way traffic] what we really have created is a through path to the back street and to Spring Garden, and we are not trying to promote the vehicular use there,” Ortega said. “By shifting the drive west, and pushing cars to the back, we were thinking that the alternative modes would benefit.”

Ortega noted that the city regulates the distance between driveway connections, and that by using the existing access drive for the cell tower as the entry to the future parking lot, those requirements would be satisfied. It would also avoid adding a second crossover point between greenway users and road traffic coming into the parking lot.

Planning board members asked Comer why she needed such a large parking lot, taking up the entire lot plus the new area of the closed roadway on South Edgeworth Street. Her current restaurant has 40 seats, Comer said, and she knows how many cars she needs coming into her parking lot every day. The new project requires between 68 and 88 parking spaces.

“I know what we require every single day, so I’m only basing that off of the history that I’ve learned in my experience there in the last five years with that café,” Comer said. “There should be about 600 cars coming in a day in order to make this successful. I know we need that number of cars. We need that number of parking spaces.”

Parking has been an issue in developing plans for the site, Comer said.

She had the zoning changed to central business district in order to avoid traditional zoning parking requirements.

“If we were required to have a certain amount we would never have the amount we need for the sizes of these restaurants,” Comer said. “Regardless if I have 88 or 68, or whatever the site plan will create, we will never have enough to be able to have a restaurant there unless we had it zoned central business district.”

Engineers Homer Wade and David Michaels, both with offices at 621 Eugene Court, spoke against the street closure request. Both men said they favored Comer’s project, but not at the cost of losing that access to Spring Garden Street. Eugene Court would still lead to Spring Garden Street to the east, but both businessmen said it was critical to their business to have the access point at South Edgeworth Street as well.

Wade asked that a public easement of 24 feet be attached to the property, but Comer was staunchly opposed, citing safety concerns.

“The worst thing that anybody could have happen there is if someone gets killed on their way of just bolting through to Spring Garden Street,” Comer said. “I don’t think I want it to be a cut through.”

Planning board members seemed uneasy with the project’s lack of a specific traffic plan and ultimately voted against recommending the street closure to city council. In a 6-2 vote, with board member Marc Isaacson recusing himself because he represents one of the parties in the development, the board sent the decision forward to city council.

Comer seemed confident with her chances to get five votes on city council approving the street closure request. With so many powerful people behind the Downtown Greenway, and a spirit of boosterism pervading much of the project’s rationale, her hunch is likely accurate.

Just before the planning board voted to deny her request, Comer reminded them of that larger development goal. The building had sat vacant for seven years, she said, and she was the first client in three years to express interest in the spot. She said the Downtown Greenway was three to five years away from bringing the type of foot traffic she would need to make the restaurant successful.

“This is not a great location. I’m going to make it a great location,” Comer said. “In order to do that, I have to have some sort of considerations and parking is going to be one of those.”

The city council will consider that matter at its Nov. 18 meeting. !