Debate: Is a 'Restaurant Recession' a Sign of Urban Decline?

Examining both sides of a debate about whether the urban revival's high-water mark is visible in the restaurant sector.
March 15, 2017, 1pm PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Alan Erenhalt writes a provocative article, concerned with the "limits of café urbanism." After noting that "[i]n many comeback neighborhoods, it’s a reasonable estimate that locally owned restaurants are responsible for at least three-quarters of the resurgence," Erenhalt looks for, and finds, evidence that the momentum supplied by restaurants might be starting to "peter out."

In 2016, according to one reputable study, the number of independently owned restaurants in the United States -- especially the relatively pricey ones that represent the core of café urbanism -- declined by about 3 percent after years of steady growth. The remaining ones were reporting a decline in business from a comparable month in the previous year.

Erenhalt also find anecdotal evidence to support those claims in the Clarendon district in Arlington, Virginia.

Enter Joe Cortright into the debate, countering with Erenhalt's conclusions along two lines of thinking. The first is that "café urbanism" assigns too much power to restaurants as drivers of urban revival. Second, Cortright explains, "the data clearly show that the restaurant business continues to expand. If anything, nationally, we’re in the midst of a continuing and historic boom in eating out." The central question of this debate, for Cortright, is whether the country is moving toward an "experience economy." He sees reason to believe the country is still developing as an experience economy, and urban eateries will continue to increase. 

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Published on Monday, March 6, 2017 in Governing
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