Matt Assad and Scott Kraus have a well-written article on the economics of restaurant clusters, in the context of the downtown development taking place in Allentown. As you’ll see, there’s basically no economic evidence in favor of the protectionist view, and lots of support for the “saturation theory” that says a downtown with a ton of different restaurants to choose from will grow the population of restaurant-goers, rather than dividing the pie into smaller and smaller pieces.
On an unrelated point, I wanted to flag this section about J.B. Reilly because the guy catches a ton of flack from people suspicious that he’s just some opportunist out to make a quick buck. The reality seems to be that he’s in this for the long haul, and genuinely cares about transforming center city Allentown into a 24-hour live/work/play environment. Disagree with his vision all you want, but I personally agree with his urbanist design opinions and it’s clear to me that he cares a great deal about the city:
Still, J.B. Reilly, CEO of City Center Investment Corp., said all those new restaurants aren’t just encouraging, they’re necessary. Without them, the downtown cannot shed its reputation of being a place where there is nothing to do after 5 p.m. For Reilly, whose company plans to open five restaurants, hockey is the smallest part of the equation.
The key lies more with the 2,000 to 3,000 workers who will be in three new office buildings being built, and the hundreds of new residents that will soon be living downtown, he said. Reilly said the 170 apartments he’ll have open by late 2014 will bring 250 new residents, and more will come. He expects there to be as many as 1,000 new downtown residents in five to seven years.
And Reilly believes the restaurants are a linchpin to all of it.
“This needs to be a place where people want to be for dinner, for business and to live,” Reilly said. “If we don’t build this to scale very quickly, it’s not going to work. People don’t want to eat in a suburban strip mall anymore. They want an authentic experience in a real downtown that has energy. That’s what we’re going to have here. So, no I have no concern that this is too much. If anything, it’s not enough, yet.”
Becky Bradley, the eight-year planning director for Easton and the new executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, subscribes to the saturation theory, because she’s seen it work.
“Easton has been able to use its restaurants to lead the revitalization efforts,” Bradley said. “We opened nearly two dozen new restaurants in the last six years, and I think Easton has learned that food can lead the way.”