Serving up more outdoor dining

Dec. 22, 2013 @ 06:26 PM

One emerging aspect of life in and around downtown Durham these days is outdoor dining.

Actually “outdoor dining” may be a bit too ostentatious for some venues such as the small tables outside Daisy Cakes on Foster Street or the wooden picnic tables outside Cocoa Cinnamon down the street or Fullsteam on Rigsbee Avenue.

Our region’s temperate weather through much of the spring and fall – and even, as we have surely noticed this past weekend, the occasional late-December day – makes dining or just sipping a beer or coffee outside attractive here. Local landmarks like the Weaver Street Market in Carrboro or Foster’s markets in Chapel Hill and Durham are swarming with couples, families, and individuals -- even pets -- on anything approximating a pleasant day. Heck, we’re southerners, so we’ll even brave the outdoors in 90-degree-90-percent-humidity Augusts.

But the increasing number of outdoor tables in our ever-more-lively downtown is adding to the unique buzz there. We may not be on a par with Paris’ sidewalk cafes just yet, but we’ve spawned many opportunities to linger in the outdoors while enjoying our favorite eatery.

The City Council green-lighted an intriguing addition to that scene last week.  The Gentian Group got the go-ahead to develop an outdoor dining space in Holland Alley, a partly cobblestoned thoroughfare between East Chapel Hill Street and the Morgan Street segment of the Downtown Loop.

The arrangement took some negotiating between the city and Gentian, which is transforming the adjoining quirky mid-century-modern building that formerly housed Mutual Savings and Loan into a boutique hotel.

The developers initially wanted to take over the alley altogether, but the city was rightly reluctant to permanently cede title of the space to adjoining property owners. Instead, the city will grant the hotel developer an easement that will specifically permit outdoor dining. Should the hotel stop using the space for that, the city could revoke the easement with only 90 days' notice.

The city could similarly terminate the easement if the hotel goes out of business, doesn’t maintain the property properly or if the city decides the space “is needed for a public purpose.”

The developer will be required to replace any trees in the space that become sick or die. That provision should help assuage concerns of some opponents of the change who worried – reasonably enough – about losing a patch of green space in an especially closely built part of downtown.

But the space, for all its charm, is a bit of a hidden treasure, not seeing a great deal of foot traffic on normal days. The prospect of some outdoor dining activating that space and luring people who might otherwise hurry past, heading too or from the Post Office, perhaps, could make it an even more engaging open space.

The easement sounds like a good compromise that could add yet another eclectic attraction to a downtown that thrives on its eclecticism.