Another restaurant is preparing to come on line in the Village — Harmonee Tavern — and the corner of State Street and Underwood Avenue is fast becoming a center point for the foodie establishment. There are at least 17 places to eat — high end and low — within a half -mile of that corner.
Now, just try to find a place to park.
Jeff Rauh said lack of parking is one of several factors that led to his decision to close Robertson Ace Hardware. It was hard for customers to find parking, and a tenant who lives above the hardware store said it was not uncommon to come home on a weekend night and find the private parking spaces reserved for tenants occupied by others.
And of course anyone who has tried to eat out in the Village on a Friday or Saturday night without a reservation knows it can take an hour or more to find a place to park, walk some distance to the restaurant and wait in line for a seat.
Patrons vs. parking
Jim Plaisted, executive director of the Village Business Improvement District, said there are 200 parking spots within two or three blocks of the corner of State and Underwood. The city's 2011 Village area plan identifies even more in the Village center: 318 spots, not including the most distant spaces, west of the Little Red Store, under the Harmonee Bridge. A separate calculation in the report counts 346 spots.
But consider the volume of people that come and go from the Village. Cafe Hollander sees 500 to 1,000 people on a weekend night, manager Stacey Bemowski said. Chancery, a few steps away, seats 185, said general manager Bob Frederickson, and those seats might turn over three times in a night — a net addition of more than 500 people. It is true that Chancery has a parking lot with spaces for between 40 and 50 cars, but even if all of those cars were driven by Chancery diners, which is rarely the case, it doesn't begin to absorb the parking Frederickson needs.
At Ristorante Bartolotta, just across the street, a good night will see two or three seatings of 55 diners, yielding as many as 180 people, owner Joe Bartolotta said. His Pizzeria Piccola a couple doors away is another demand on parking.
Add all these together, and you might have more than 1,500 people moving into and out of the Village just for these restaurants, and that doesn't include La Reve, Noodles, Firefly, Yo Mama!, Qdoba, Starbucks, Baskin Robbins and the string of restaurants and bars east on State Street. Add all these diners up and you might have them arriving in, conservatively, 500 cars. This does not include employees of the establishments, which Joe Bartolotta estimates at a total of some 250, who tend to arrive one per car. Ristorante Bartolotta itself employees 30 or 40 people, he said.
Not all diners or shoppers need parking at the same time, of course, but the restaurant operators still feel the pain.
For Bartolotta, the parking problem expresses itself in a couple ways.
"My customer base skews a little bit older, probably 40-plus, and we're considered more of an upscale restaurant, and we take reservations, and what happens is they can't find parking," he said. "They drive around and around and around and around. They come in sometimes 10, 15, 20 minutes late for their reservations, and they're already upset and frustrated. And a lot of people just call and say they can't find parking, and they're leaving."
Bartolotta has wayfinding postings on his website. A map shows the tiered lot on Blanchard Street, the structure next to the bank, the Harmonee Bridge parking lot near the Little Red Store, and other, smaller lots.
The Harmonee Bridge parking lot, while large, is difficult to access from Ristorante Bartolotta.
"You've got to enter from the backside, you have to go over the Harmonee Bridge and come down into it — so it's very difficult to even explain it, I don't know you would even tell people how to get there, that's always been a problem," he said. "Additionally, in inclement weather, or the winter, it's a long walk to our restaurant from that lot."
Another pressure he perceives is the draw of Starbuck's, Qdoba, Baskin-Robbins and Breadsmith filling the Village Faire lot and pushing cars down into the Village center, taking slots convenient to his businesses.
Frederickson, of Chancery, often finds his dedicated lot along State Street full, and the staff directs drivers to the same public lots that everybody uses. But he shares Bartolotta's frustration about the Harmonee Bridge parking lot.
"The one we have trouble with ... is that lot underneath the bridge that nobody uses. Well, there's a reason no one uses it. It's too far; it's not safe," he said.
The Chancery lot has an attendant during lunch and dinner hours — an attempt to dissuade non-Chancery parkers.
But, Frederickson said, "It's a hard, fine line here. Say a customer comes in there and they're going to go to Café Hollander, for instance. It could be my customer the next day, so I don't want to come down hard on them and give them a bad taste in their mouth because I'm being a hardliner on parking here," he said.
Over at Café Hollander, Bemowski said few parking issues come to their attention. Hollander, by location, is probably the biggest beneficiary of the Hart's Mills lot, across the pedestrian bridge, where the Farmers Market is held. It is also more convenient than many other establishments to the lot under the Harmonee Bridge.
The approval of Harmonee Tavern, just west of Café Hollander and run by the same operators, is an unwelcome development for some existing Village restaurateurs — not so much because it adds competition, but because it means an even greater demand on parking.
Frederickson said it has caused him to rethink his parking lot.
"I'm stepping it up," he said, of enforcement. He's instituting a $5 fee to those parking there, and giving the driver a voucher for that much to spend at Chancery that day toward their meal.
Bartolotta said he's not opposed the Harmonee Tavern as a business — "I'm an entrepreneur too," he said — but "Milwaukee is still a parking city, a driving city. It's not a biking and walking city, especially in Wauwatosa, and there has to be enough parking support for the restaurants and it's not only the restaurants."
At one non-restaurant, the The Little Read Bookstore, next to Chancery, owner Linda Berg said she has no problem with parking. She has an informal arrangement with Chancery to use its lot, and encourages her customers to try to avoid lunch time.
"They know they're going to come in the bookstore and not sit down for a meal for an hour or two. They're going to come in here, get their book, and get back in their car," she said.
Plaisted, of the Village BID, said there is enough parking, but it's poorly marked. The BID has commissioned new wayfinding signs on which parking will be a prominent element, he said.
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