With restaurants, coffee shops, apartments and retail, downtown Lincoln seems like it’s almost become an extension of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for student entertainment.
Like the university, the future of the downtown area is also focused on growth.
In the past year alone, The Railyard, Pinnacle Bank Arena and Canopy Street have brought in new businesses hoping to capitalize on the college town atmosphere and the added attractions in the area.
With UNL administrators hoping to expand enrollment to 30,000 students by 2020, the growing downtown area will be capable of accommodating the projected numbers, said Brandon Garrett, a long-range planner for the Lincoln/Lancaster County Planning Department.
“The city itself has been growing at about 3,000 people each year for the past 15 years, roughly,” Garrett said. “So, it’s not hard to imagine the city being able to absorb that many people. Especially considering it would likely happen over a number of years. So I don’t think there would be any sort of panic in terms of finding places to live or available land to redevelop.”
The emphasis has been put on this redevelopment, Garrett said.
“(It’s about) recognizing the trends of more young people looking for a diversity of housing to live in,” he said. “Mixed-use neighborhoods, downtown living, rather than just two choices that we have today. Trying to kind of increase the options out there for people, hopefully.”
At this time, the long-term plan has designated that 3,000 new dwelling units would be in the greater downtown area by 2040.
“Currently, with the way things have been going, we’re kind of outpacing that number,” Garrett said. “Maybe when we re-evaluate the plan, we’ll increase that number. There’s kind of a snowball effect with all the student housing that’s becoming available in the downtown area, that once we get people living downtown, we’ll get more services that people want, to live downtown, like grocery stores and doctors’ offices and pharmacies and that sort of thing.”
The atmosphere of the rapidly expanding college-town vibe and high-activity areas has created a flood of new businesses. Whether they’ll all be able to survive remains to be seen.
Flatwater Bistro, a restaurant that will be in the Haymarket and share a wall with the Hilton Garden Inn, is one such business set to open on April 29, making it one of the newest businesses in the area.
John Coffey is a co-owner of Flatwater with Jay Donaldson. Coffey explained that the opening of their restaurant was as an obvious next step in his career.
“(The restaurant) is something that’s been stewing in the system for years,” he said.
Coffey and Donaldson have worked together off and on for 27 years. Flatwater is their sixth time working together.
The decision to open an establishment where they did was well calculated. Coffey explained that he and Donaldson did their research, looking at both when and where traffic was heaviest for not only vehicles, but pedestrians as well. Therefore, the location of Flatwater was determined by strategy more than anything else.
“There’s no secret,” Coffey said. “You’ve got Pinnacle Bank Arena that’s driving business in this area.”
And Flatwater is in a prime location for the rapidly expanding Railyard and Haymarket districts; it’s located only a block and a half from the arena and four blocks away from Memorial Stadium.
Coffey said an underserviced market within both the Haymarket and The Railyard is that of breakfast. So Flatwater is hoping to serve meals of a wide variety from morning to night. This also prompted Coffey and Donaldson to develop a coffee shop that will run out of Flatwater as well.
“It was our desire to not leave any money on the doorstep,” Coffey said. “So we created a coffee shop.”
Coffey said he thinks it’s these extra steps that will help Flatwater succeed.
But for Kevin Shinn, owner and executive chef of the Haymarket’s Bread & Cup, the developing Railyard isn’t necessarily the place to be for every business. With a successful six years under his belt with Bread & Cup, Shinn decided to take advantage of the growing market surrounding the Pinnacle Bank Arena and opened Jack & June, a bar and restaurant located only a few blocks away from Bread & Cup.
Shinn said he went in with the intention of the two businesses cooperating and working with each other.
“The inspiration with what we did here is looking forward,” he said. “We always think: ‘What can we do new?’ ‘What can we do differently?’ ‘What are the trends in culinary culture?’ There we would look backward for inspiration, old recipes, old tradition, old heritage, Midwestern heritage.”
Shinn saw Jack & June opening and the flux of traffic during the Pinnacle Bank Arena’s first events, but he said he soon realized the Railyard’s clientele wasn’t the direction he wanted his business to go, and left Jack & June earlier this year.
“I learned a lot about The Railyard, that’s how I know how it behaves,” Shinn said. “It’s event-driven and the difficulty, the good and bad is it’s feast or famine. So if you have a big show, you have all this influx of people, but then the show starts and you’re empty. Show gets out and you’re full again. That was one of the really, really difficult things. Our business model (at Bread & Cup) is so much different than what we were able to do there.”
Ultimately, Shinn said he learned lessons on what he wants to do and what not do to.
“It was not a bad thing,” he said. “It just was a realization that the business had to go a different way.”
As for the future of The Railyard, Shinn said it’s too early to tell.
“Everything is so young, it’s not even a year old,” he said. “So it’s going to take time for traffic patterns to normalize and guests to figure out where they want to go and what places they like. Establishing a clientele, establishing a rhythm, it’s just going to take time.”
To the east, downtown consignment staples such as The Black Market and Ruby Begonia’s are managing to maintain their customer bases despite the flux of new businesses.
Kim Moser of Ruby Begonia’s said the shop’s unique, decade-oriented clothing won’t be found anywhere else in the growing Railyard district.
Unlike the many restaurants competing for space in the downtown expansion, retail outlets are few and far between.
“As far as traffic goes, the expansion of The Railyard area moves a lot of people the opposite direction of where we’re located,” Moser said. “Basically, we keep our customer base because of our niche market. There are also many staple businesses located on P Street that people will always go to, I think.”
The same goes for The Black Market.
“Downtown clothing stores all just support each other, really,” said Michael Degenhardt, a sales associate at The Black Market. “We all have basically the same customer base, just a different variety in clothing. People buy clothing from the downtown boutiques, and then a few years down the road we’re re-selling it here. It’s a cycle.”
With rumors of new clothing stores in the growing Railyard district, Degenhardt said he isn’t concerned.
“It really just means more of their brands will start showing up here,” he said. “It can’t really hurt us.”