Even before the new businesses were announced, finding a parking space in the trendy entertainment and food spot was a problem. It was particularly true on weekends and warm summer evenings when patrons circle the existing lot for an open space or give up and park along the two-lane Manchester Street.
Factor in a big draw like Lexington Craft Beer Week and things can get perilous.
Andrew Bishop, co-owner of Ethereal Brewing on the Pepper campus, said the most common negative comment they hear about the bustling area is about the lack of parking.
People "love the area, love coming down here but the thing that keeps them away is knowing they won’t be able to park," Bishop said. "I never expected to see cars parallel parking on Manchester. It takes some guts ... I think somebody’s going to get hit by a car before the city does something."
Bishop would like to see a crosswalk so people could go to The Burl, a music venue on the other side of Manchester, without dodging vehicles.
Jeff Wiseman, who owns Barrel House Distilling and Elkhorn Tavern at Pepper, said they've had patrons walk from downtown — once.
"People walk from the Hyatt and the Hilton. It’s not a bad walk, but you run out of sidewalk," Wiseman said. "People walk from downtown, but then they say, jeez, it’s dangerous."
He'd really love some public transportation, such as the trolley shuttles LexTran uses, to bring people to and from the area, but he'd also like street lighting and sidewalks.
"Sidewalks would be a tremendous help, so people could walk from Manchester Music Hall and The Burl to us," Wiseman said.
At least one business has offered its customers incentives to use ride-sharing services. Goodfellas Pizzeria offered $5 off for Uber so people don't have to park or walk.
"But we didn't get a lot of response," said Alex Coats, co-owner of Goodfellas. "We'd be really happy to try it again. It’s tough. We really need some city help. Everybody wants to be down here. It would be nice to get a lot across the street. And people need to be respectful of the parking spaces painted. Someone from Middle Fork came out and they were boxed in, and the other car had to be towed."
Coats said he and other business owners have considered hiring off-duty police to help control traffic on busy weekends.
"But if you have 90 parking spaces and 400 people trying to park, that won't do much good," Coats said.
The city acknowledges there is a problem. Derek Paulsen, commissioner of planning, preservation and development, said the Pepper redevelopment "is a victim of its own success."
Because it was an adaptive reuse — the defunct distillery has been repurposed into restaurants and bars — the businesses were allowed to open with fewer parking spaces than otherwise would have been required.
Then success hit.
"It became what we always knew it could be," Paulsen said. "It’s a very, very popular destination … It’s one of those places you can be outside, you’ve got the creek, it’s authentic, you can have really cool food, beer, bourbon, and everybody’s going to flock there."
Now, he said, they are hearing that parking is becoming a major issue. Complicating things: Manchester is actually a state road, not a city road.
"We're talking with the state," he said. "How do we make sure we can get people safely across this, as the Distillery District becomes more built out … as Town Branch Trail comes through. There will be more things."
But there are no plans to put in a crosswalk this summer, Paulsen said.
"I’d love it if things were that easy," he said. "We have to work with the state … How do we not restrict the industrial uses that have been there but also protect pedestrian safety? So we're trying to make sure the parking that is needed is on the campus, not across the street. We’re not ignoring it, it’s just a matter of funding and process."
Help is coming, said Barry McNees, who owns the five-story Pepper Rickhouse building that is being developed.
McNees said they are preparing to pave the lot on the east side of the building — the side with the giant mural — and that will add more than 100 parking spaces.
An area along the creek side of the building has been paved so people can walk to the west side without going along Manchester.
And a walk-through passage in the Pepper Rickhouse building is being opened up, too, so people can park on the mural side and go to the bars, restaurants, brewery and distilleries on the other side easily.
McNees said he's hoping the city deems those new 100 spaces enough for the new ground-floor businesses — which could include a coffee shop — to receive certificates of occupancy so they can open.
He wants the city to move more quickly with plans to put in a pedestrian walkway on Manchester. The walkway is part of the Town Branch Trail, which will be built from downtown Lexington along the long-buried waterway and will extend into the Distillery District an beyond, providing bike and walking trails.
But the Manchester Street portion is likely to be the last section developed, which could mean years more before crosswalks, sidewalks or lighting come to the Distillery District.
In the meantime, as the upper stories of the five-story concrete rickhouse are redeveloped, McNees will expand the parking lot to add hundreds more spaces. And he is working on a plan that could bring valet-parking for the area, too.
The additional parking will be welcomed by businesses and customers, who are eager to experience places such as Middle Fork Kitchen Bar, which has been receiving national attention, and Crank and Boom Ice Cream Lounge.
The additional parking and the pass through "absolutely will help," said Ethereal's Bishop. "We already have people that park over there, Barry does have gravel down and people have been walking on the side of the building, between the building an Manchester, so it’s been shown people are willing to park there. I think having a straight shot through the building ... being an immense help."