Alterra Coffee Roasters Inc. has had its eye on the corner of North 68th and West Wells streets as a café site for some years, and now – with an accepted offer to buy the property in hand – has taken its vision for the site to the streets.
The allure of 6745 W. Wells St., said Alterra co-owner Ward Fowler, is its location in a neighborhood-scale business district immersed in a dense urban residential setting.
“Our places feel best when they’re at a crossroads for a neighborhood,” Fowler said. “What’s most important is the immediate neighborhood,” where potential patrons reside within a one- or two-block radius and can walk or bike to the café.
With Alterra’s focus on neighborhood locales, pitching its Tosa plan to potential business and residential neighbors before appearing at city committee and council meetings is a natural first step, Fowler said.
“I like meeting the personalities” in the areas where Alterra hopes to locate, Fowler said. Plus, he said, “if we are going to be a fixture … it’s better to give your business and homeowner neighbors a heads up.”
Fowler and developer Sean Phelan, of Phelan Development, LLC, presented the company’s east Tosa café plan at the district’s Charles Jacobus Park Neighborhood Association annual meeting Tuesday. The plan will get a formal hearing before the city's Plan Commission at 7 p.m. Monday. The proposed Alterra Café would replace the controversial Hyde Park condominium project, a high-end, eight-unit townhouse development that failed to take off.
If the city approves the project, Fowler said, the company would buy the 0.34-acre lot and could begin construction in spring 2012. If construction begins in early spring, he said, the café could open by late October 2012. Project costs and precise timing for the project are not yet determined, pending city approvals and site condition review.
Traffic, safety, parking top concerns
Nearly two dozen business owners and homeowners gathered Tuesday at the Hart Park community building to learn details about their potential neighbor’s plans, voice concerns, offer suggestions and gauge the potential impact the business would have in the area. Not surprisingly, concerns centered on traffic, congestion and related safety issues, for pedestrians and motorists, as well as parking in a district that relies heavily on on-street parking.
The initial design draft shows an entry-only drive on North 68th Street, a bit further south than the current parking lot access for the former clinic building. A second entry and exit drive is on West Wells.
The concern, neighbors said, is that patrons who pull into the 19-car lot only to find it full cannot easily turn around and exit back to West Wells, and some may opt to go the wrong way out the entry-only drive on North 68th Street. The result could be a jammed up parking lot that ends up jamming traffic on North 68th Street.
Another concern was the potential for Alterra customers arriving by car to venture onto nearby residential streets in search of parking, which could create safety hazards for residents and their children.
“I am pro business, and I am sick and tired of this blighted old clinic,” said Steve Wallner, a neighborhood association board member who lives a block away, on North 67th Street. “I want something that will add to this community.”
“But I know how popular Alterra is, and I can envision people driving up and down side streets looking for parking,“ Wallner said.
According to Fowler, “people are not going to try that hard” to stop at the café, as popping in for a $2 or $3 cup of coffee for many is done on impulse. That impulse is quickly quashed, he said, if parking is a problem.
As for increased traffic, Fowler said, “it cuts both ways. … Traffic makes congestion, but it also slows the traffic down.”
“We do need to realize that we live in an urban setting,” said Dawn Marie Metz, owner of the Samson & Delilah hair salon across the street from the proposed café, at 6744 W. Wells, and a 17-year resident of the Charles Jacobus Park neighborhood. “Regardless of what goes in there, there is going to be a lot of traffic.”
Although Metz echoed fellow neighbors’ traffic, safety and parking concerns and suggested solutions, she said the Alterra proposal could be the best option for the district. The café could become a community gathering spot, Metz said, and is the type of business most likely to succeed “in these economic times.”
The proposed Hyde Park condo project fell flat due to lack of sales for new housing, Metz said, and a boutique or other similar retail likely would struggle as the effects of the 2008 recession continue to play out.
Hybrid café design to blend with district
The proposed café would be among the company’s largest, at more than 3,200 square feet, and its design is a hybrid of Alterra’s existing cafés, Phelan said. The building scale and materials were chosen to blend with the size and textures of the business district and nearby homes, he said. The portion of the building closest to the business district, he said, will be brick, with the southern portion closest to homes to be wood.
“We’ve taken elements from different Alterra locations, but we’ve developed this into its own being, its own soul” to blend with the neighborhood, Phelan said.
The café’s indoor seating capacity will be about 60 to 70, and includes an indoor/outdoor area with large glass panels that can fully open in good weather months to create sheltered, open-air seating. That area also includes a fireplace and, with its full glass walls, is designed to create “a cozy, residential, intimate feel,” Phelan said.
Courtyard seating for up to 35 is planned for corner portion of the lot at the intersection of North 68th and West Wells. The corner courtyard also will include a bicycle parking lot.
Potential threat to district's bakers
Another key concern that resonated among neighbors was that Alterra looms as a “goliath” that threatens local bakers, and, in particular, Merry Turner, whose business at La Tarte, 6742 W. Wells, is nearly identical to that of an Alterra Café, but in miniature.
As soon as Alterra determined the Tosa site was in play as a future Alterra Café site, Fowler said, Turner was one of the first calls, as she was one of a handful of wholesale bakers Alterra contracted with in its early years.
Although Fowler said he understands concerns that Alterra may threaten the viability of existing bakery businesses, he said the increased traffic is more likely to have a positive ripple effect of increased business for La Tarte, Simma’s Bakery and other businesses in the district.
“We want to locate in the neighborhood for perhaps the same reason that Merry wants to be in the neighborhood,” Fowler said. “We want to do business with the people in the neighborhood.”
“Nobody knows how our business is going to affect the neighborhood,“ he added. “I know we’re going to bring in new visitors to that little strip. ... Generally, when you see more people, you see more business.”