GREENSBORO — Marty Kotis said he hopes his next project will be easily overlooked.
Kotis, a Greensboro-based restaurant owner and developer, normally goes for a higher profile. His company is the largest restaurant developer in the Southeast, with 230 and counting.
But his plans for 1.8 acres beside the railroad tracks that cross under the Eugene Street overpass into downtown could bring quirkiness to a new level and create buzz for a new downtown destination, Kotis said.
He wants to convert the property’s old tour bus terminal into a collection of restaurants, bars, a beer garden and an entertainment venue — all well below eye level as heavy traffic rolls overhead.
Kotis said he believes if his vision works, his development will link the back-alley revival on South Elm and Lewis streets on the east with the huge population of students at Greensboro College and UNC-Greensboro to the west.
They’re a big target, people under 35, often called “millennials.”
“Normally when I design something,” Kotis said, “I make it as convenient as possible. But they (millennials) want to go on a little treasure hunt.”
Kotis has big convenient projects on the books as well. He announced a few months ago a 20,000- to 25,000-square-foot retail building on Battleground Avenue in front of the RED Cinemas that he also owns. He described that as a “high-end, cool, brick, industrial building.”
This downtown project will have a distinctly low-end look that attracts a lot of energetic people, Kotis said.
During a recent sunny break in a rainy week, Kotis walked the property that is covered in fine gravel, dirt and weeds to talk about what he sees in the blighted spot.
Across the property’s southern side sit a small office with a peaked roof, another small, brick building and a larger building with four white garage bays once used for bus service. On the west side sit the ruins, or, rather, walls, of four old, red-brick buildings that have seen decades of deterioration.
Kotis sees revival, not ruins, with a busy beer garden in front of garage-bay doors that lead to an indoor restaurant and bar space, some kind of small takeout restaurant in the tiny office to the far left and his most outlandish idea, a “speakeasy” bar in the small building in between.
An old bus left over from the tour business is a found architectural object to Kotis. He will cut the front off the bus and make it the entrance to the speakeasy, a concept he hasn’t defined fully but a kind of private bar with restricted keypad entrance and changing guest qualifications.
“Maybe it’s something odd, like maybe your birthday. Or maybe you’ll have to go to a certain place to get a code,” he said.
He envisions food trucks, even live music with a band playing on an elevated aircraft cargo truck platform that Kotis owns.
“The millennials love random stuff,” he said. “They like to explore. They want to see and do cool things.”
It all fits with the hidden revival off South Elm on the other side of Eugene Street, where a few entrepreneurs and creative people have built another destination that sometimes attracts the entire city, sometimes attracts a few midnight hobbyists.
Andy Zimmerman of AZ Development LLC has brought a practical and creative approach to rehabbing old buildings on Lewis Street that include HQ Greensboro, The Forge and Gibbs Hundred brewery. He recently bought the most notorious property in The Railyard district, Lotus Lounge, which has been the scene of two fatal shootings in two years.
With this last blemish swept away, Zimmerman and another company, Momentum Development, which owns Spice Cantina and The Worx restaurant on the Barnhardt end of The Railyard parking area, can build on their success.
Although Kotis doesn’t own the small bit of land under the Eugene Street bridge, it’s easy to see Spice Cantina from the north of his property and envision a short pathway to the action across the road. Momentum regularly sponsors warm-weather markets on the parking lot, and the city sponsors a skating rink there during the holiday season.
Zimmerman, who had once made an offer on the same property that Kotis owns, is talking with Kotis, and he said it’s possible the two could work together somehow.
As Kotis gave a tour, a colorful freight train with four locomotives rolled slowly past on the elevated tracks, creating a steady but not deafening metallic clink that will add priceless atmosphere to his venue.
Kotis, who also owns two semi-trailers on the site, is mulling a transportation theme for his restaurant names, but he won’t even say when he would begin to work on the property. That’s despite the fact that his request for rezoning was approved Sept. 21 by the Greensboro Zoning Commission.
A timetable? “Ten years,” he said with a shrug that he clearly meant as a joke.
City might help
Zack Matheny said Kotis is aiming for the geographic and philosophical heart of downtown revival.
Matheny, president and chief executive officer of Downtown Greensboro Inc., center city’s development group, said that his group and the city should work together to improve lighting and walkways between Kotis’ property and those around Lewis Street.Kotis said his company might do some of the work and share costs with the city, which would then own the new infrastructure.
Matheny, a former Greensboro City Council member, said, “I have met with city staff in and around the location talking about how can we bring that connectivity.”
Matheny called last week from San Francisco, where he was attending the International Downtown Association conference.
He already has picked up a few ideas for Greensboro.
“Walkability is what people want,” Matheny said, “making sure we have connectivity behind that bridge and connect everything.”
For the moment, Kotis’ scrubby-looking property sits behind a razor-wire fence along an unadorned railroad track.
But once it’s cleaned up and full of outdoor tables, the property will come alive on warm evenings, Kotis said.
“We create our own energy,” he said.
Contact Richard M. Barron at (336) 373-7371, and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.