By Kim Siebert MacPhail
With parking already tight during peak times at the mixed-use building at 213 Burlington Road, the Planning Board expressed concern with a parking plan presented to them by Panera’s Gregg Godfrey and attorney for the project Pam Brown of Brown & Brown, P.C. Although ground has been broken for an additional 48 parking spaces in front of the building that now houses Flatbread, Bamboo, The Melting Pot and several office-based businesses, the lack of firm data on car trips and traffic flow for a new Panera rapid pick-up/ delivery concept is creating uncertainty for Bedford’s town planners.
At a public hearing on Tuesday, October 30, Attorney Brown provided the Planning Board with what was termed “a conservative estimate” of how many parking spaces would be needed to accommodate Panera employee and customer parking during peak lunch hours. With 11 employees on hand and best-guess projections as to business volume, Brown determined that 24 spaces would be needed, with some spaces in the front dedicated specifically to rapid pick-up clientele.
Parking for restaurants is calculated for zoning purposes on the number of employees plus the number of seats in a given establishment. In this case, the proposed 36 seats do not “belong” to Panera, even though customers may avail themselves of the open atrium seating. However, there is still the expectation that Panera will generate a heavy volume of traffic for rapid pick-up and delivery vehicles.
Different from the classic Panera model, the Burlington Road Panera would be less than half the size of a typical café with atrium seating open to anyone, not specifically Panera customers. Instead of in-house clientele, the majority of business at this location would come from online ordering—off-site or from iPads stationed in the atrium—with rapid, prepaid pick-up. It would also provide delivery for an added fee as well as pre-ordered catering.
The only other location where Panera has piloted this new concept is in Braintree at Five Corners, according to Godfrey, but it added rapid pick-up to its traditional, full-seating café model.
Concerns expressed by the Planning Board focused on whether or not the estimate of 24 spaces was realistic, given the expected volume of business. With an already over-flowing parking lot, including people parking on the grass, the Board’s first concern for public safety was compounded by the desire not to under-supply parking capacity that could turn customers away from all the restaurants in the building as well as frustrating those who work in the building’s offices.
“Let’s say you’re more successful than your estimates indicate,” Planning Board chair Jon Silver posed. “What’s your Plan B if there’s a cluster of cars trying to circle the parking lot and you don’t have room for them?”
“That’s a fair question,” responded Godfrey. “We’ve been mulling this thing over for some time to really understand [the new concept.] We could open it up and it’s not this Panera warm environment with the fireplace and all the seats and this area that you can just kind of lounge in. That may not resonate with people. We just don’t know. What we really are banking on is that people, given the opportunity to have something delivered to their office different from pizza or whatever else they might be getting today, will get the salads and the sandwiches and soups that we provide….This is less than half the size of a typical Panera café. We know what we do now in take-out business [in Braintree] and those are the numbers we gave Pam [Brown] for the estimates you see in front of you.”
Godfrey went on to say that the company doesn’t want to set up a situation where potential customers get discouraged and never return because they failed to find a parking space.
Saying that the additional 48 spaces now being built were needed to satisfy the building’s needs three years ago, well before Panera came along, Director of Planning Glenn Garber added, “ So the question really becomes, how many of those 48 spaces will Panera consume? We don’t want to perpetuate the existing on-site problem with the cars parking along the lawn and along the drives.”
Brown responded, “We’re doing the front 48 spaces as Phase I [of solving the parking problem.] There are a couple of spaces that are supposed to be added out back and then there are another number of spaces over in front of 209 Burlington Road that have also been approved that we look at as Phase II. We don’t want to pave more if it’s not needed. The tenants are supportive of having Panera there and the landlord is responsive to the tenants if there are parking problems….If it really gets to the point where Panera is successful, then the tenants will push to have [the landlord] build Phase II.”
Silver added, “We’re in a position of having to answer the unknowable when it comes to parking, specifically, because parking has lots of moving parts and it’s difficult to pin down. Formulas don’t always do it justice. Is it possible after the parking lot is built to do a parking count over a period of time to see how many empty spaces there are? That’s something we’ve done to good effect [before] because that provides real-world numbers that we, as a board, can look at.”
Brown agreed that doing a parking count was feasible. Director Garber further narrowed the monitoring request by targeting parking data specific to Panera clientele. “I think it’s important to differentiate the use patterns generated by Panera. I don’t want to see just a general count: this is how many cars that entered or exited the driveway. We need to understand what this particular user is generating because they are such an unusual operation.”
Planning Board member Lisa Mustapich also asked that the building’s restaurant employees be required to park in the rear of the building, freeing up preferred spaces for customers who may now decide to park on the lawn rather than walk to the building from far-flung spaces.
In comments at the end of the presentation, Selectman Mark Siegenthaler echoed the Planning Board’s concern about lack of information about traffic circulation. “I’ve been on that site and it’s not at all clear to me how well these people will be circulating and how many will be circulating at any given time….You’re talking about a lot of people coming and going very quickly in a parking lot that doesn’t work well now. So I’m confused and concerned. I’m hoping that you’re going to get some real [information].”
Planning Board members were generally enthusiastic about Panera but with questions and considerations remaining—and the additional spaces slated to be finished around Thanksgiving—the Board voted to continue the public hearing until November 27 by which time design boards and more data can be produced.