Chick-Fil-A: we’re back!

Still trying to make a suburban model urban

I found out at very late notice that a subcommittee of the Design Review Committee was meeting today at City Hall in a working session with representatives of Chick-Fil-A, to discuss a revised proposal for the prominent site at the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South in the heart of Five Points South. As many already know, their previous proposal has been denied twice: once by Design Review, and once by the Appeals Board just a couple weeks ago.

So it was with great interest that I hurried to the meeting to observe the proceedings.

First, subcommittee chairman Richard Mauk laid out the guidelines–that the subcommittee expected Chick-Fil-A to respond to each of the points laid out by the Appeals Board. The implication was: if you don’t address each point, then you don’t have much chance of success with a new presentation.

Chick-Fil-A started their presentation, once again using a site plan showing no surrounding buildings or other neighborhood context. This is Presentation 101, especially when you’ve just been raked over the coals for not being sensitive to the neighborhood. Besides the lack of context, the site plan was most notable for still containing a drive-through, and for still containing the same basic proportion of building mass to open parking (2 of the main concerns of both previous “No” votes).

While the Chick-Fil-A in-house engineer was attempting to explain the plan, committee member Don Cosper asked why the location needed so many parking spaces when only 21 are required by code [almost every surrounding business has a variance on parking and very few have on-site parking at all]. The answer from the Chick-Fil-A traffic engineer was, “we just have a large site so we are filling it with more parking than we are required.”

What ensued was a somewhat circular discussion, with Design Review members Mauk, Cosper, Cheryl Morgan, and Mark Fugnitto continually reminding Chick-Fil-A about the importance of neighborhood, pedestrians, and context, and Chick-Fil-A appearing a bit caught off -guard (again, despite the appeal process they’ve just been through). The company has now hired an outside design consultant (architect Bill Allswell–I’m afraid I’m not spelling his name correctly). This architect also presented two proposed exterior elevations, one which he admitted was “more suburban” and one which was “more contextual”. Neither was aesthetically very pleasing, though each tried to extend the mass of the actual building with some false screen walls.

Morgan was especially adamant that false screen walls do not substitute for active storefronts engaging pedestrian life in an urban area. She summed it up by saying that CFA still has a very suburban plan, and they need to return with something new, at which point the “working committee” would meet with them again.

All in all, a somewhat bizarre meeting: with all the resources CFA has, and all they’ve been through, you would think they would have a more sophisticated visual presentation, and one that truly addressed the points in the Appeal Board denial. Instead it was 95% more of the same.

I will try to alert everyone to the time of the next working session, assuming it’s open to the public again.

Finally, looming in the background but mainly unspoken today: the drive-through. Still in the plan. Which is bewildering.

FOOTNOTE: out of courtesy to the designers presenting, I’m unable to show any of their draft renderings on this blog.

[thanks to link576 for the Chick-Fil-A bags]

36 responses to “Chick-Fil-A: we’re back!

  1. I think the Design Review Committee is doing a really good job here, and this process is working-out better than I’d hoped. Does anyone have any contact info of these committee’s members so that I can thank them? If I don’t hear anything soon, I’ll try to find their e-mail addresses and maybe post them so anyone else who feels the way I do can also thank them.

    • Mwoj: I do not have contact info for the entire list, but if you write Kathy Puckett in the Planning Department, she should be able to help:

      Kathy.Puckett@ci.birmingham.al.us

      And I generally agree–the committee, given all the constraints they work under both legal and zoning, not to mention time (this is a volunteer committee), does a very good job.

  2. Any renderings they submit to the DRC should then be public documents. You don’t need their permission to show them. Also, even if a meeting recesses into an executive session, it must begin as a public meeting and the comittee must cite a specific statutory reason for going into executive session. Whatsmore, they must announce meetings in a public way, even so-called work sessions. Anything less is a crime and should be reported to the district attorney.

    • Kyle–staff is getting this issue clarified with the City Attorney right now. In the meantime, though I can’t tell anyone what to do or not do, I personally am erring on the conservative side and not sharing documents without express approval of the owner. Hopefully we’ll get a clear reading on this issue soon. And, yes the working session as with other public meetings was posted for 7 days on the 2nd floor bulletin board.

  3. Thanks so much, Jeremy, for your diligence in keeping us informed.

  4. This is bizarre. Does Chick-fil-A think that if they keep coming to these committees with basically the same plan again and again, one of them will eventually give in? Have you ever heard of anything similar in your career?

    • Charles–I think this is rare–to be denied, then appeal and lose, and still come back for more–only a deep-pocketed corporation may have the patience–and money–to do this.

  5. Pingback: Chick Fil-A: we’re back! | The Red Mountain Post

  6. Jeremy, PLEASE keep me notified of any potential developments in either this or other relevant issues if you hear of them. My number is 205-690-0277

  7. After the continuous lip service to transparency in the people’s business, I am at a total loss as to how public meetings can be held essentially in private (it being the case that a meeting not publicly announced can hardly be intended to be a public meeting). Can someone with authority to do so explain this to me? I am very confused & conflicted.

    • Mary–all public meetings (including this one) are posted with 7 days notice on the 2nd floor City Hall bulletin board. I wish they could also be posted on the website, but current City IT capabilities/logistics aren’t working in our favor. So the meeting is publicly announced–but obviously in a fairly inaccessible way. Unless you can hike to City Hall once a week to look at the board, you’d be in the dark.

  8. Chick Fil-A should hire me as a consultant. I am a DESIGNER, not an Architect. However, I have been involved with the downtown renovation in Lineville and have designed some unique and prominent private residences. I went to Samford (1959-1963) and am very familiar with 5 Points, then and now. I designed a $2M addition to a local church, including a 85 car parking lot WITH NO CURBS LEADING INTO THE BUILDING. An Architect, of course, drew up the construction plans. Two home I designed, and provided owner-represented oversight during construction, we both over $2M homes. My point about CFA is that I could help them with the “FIT” for the 5 Points area that Architects sometime can’t visualize….no offense, but that is the truth. Your article exhibits that. I do not expect to hear from you, but my email is there in case anyone wants to discuss this project with me.
    Best regards, Keith Ingram
    256-343-9261

    • Keith, at this point I almost wish that CFA would agree to hold an open call for design entries, with a jury of neighborhood leaders/merchants/architects selecting the final 3 to present to Design Review or something like that. I think you’re totally correct that they could benefit from some help–with both site configuration and building design.

  9. I am completely at a loss as to why this is still an issue. The people of Birmingham and the Appeals Board, alike, have spoken out against this and it still continues to come up? Find another location to put your establishment and leave Five Points alone!

    • Laura–you’re not the only one surprised. As I answered another comment above, CFA has deep pockets and it’s within their right to keep “tilting at the windmill” if they want to spend the time and money. That being said, it does seem like a big waste of their money–and our time–if they are not going to make sure they are satisfying all of the appeals board’s objections.

  10. Good stuff, Jeremy. I’m following your blog on it from Asheville, happy to hear the committee is fighting back. There’s too much fast-food in downtown as it is! Hope to see you and Larry this weekend while we’re in town.

  11. I’m having a hard time understanding whether CFA is woefully arrogant or willfully ignorant. It has to be one or the other. If anything, this whole convoluted process highlights the chasm that often exists between corporate ideology and community ideals. Quite sad, actually.

  12. The Committee is doing an outstanding job. This company’s utter clueless this really amazing.

  13. Alabama Open Meetins law requires them to advertise the meeting before holding it. Frequently, this is something as simple as posting it on a City Hall bulletin board, but they have to do it 24 hours prior, except in emergencies.

    What’s more, if a public body decides to hold an executive session, they must first convene a public meeting and state a statutory reason for closing the meeting. The most common exemptions are to discuss someone’s good name and character or to receive privileged advice from legal counsel. Also, they cannot deliberate in closed session, discuss issues with other parties, nor can they vote.

    Failure to comply with the open meetins law is a crime and should be reported to the district attorney.

    From the looks of it, this was not a closed meeting, but I’m not sure that it was announced publicly. It certainly wasn’t publicized very well.

    Also, you don’t need permission from the designers to show images they submit for review, especially if they gave copies to the committee. At that point, they are public records.

  14. Thanks for the update – I posted this with link on FB and Twitter.

  15. Mary,
    I’m not sure I have any ‘authority’ but since I post the notices I think I can speak to your question.

    This meeting was conducted per the open meeting laws of the state of Alabama. Notice was posted 7 days prior to the meeting and all notices can be found on the 2nd floor of City Hall for all open meetings. While I understand your frustration, the City cannot be expected to notify everyone of everything.

    Keep in mind; this was a public meeting, not a public hearing. I don’t anticipate the public will be allowed to speak to this project until it comes back to the Design Review Committee. Even at that point it will be at the discretion of the DRC to allow public input.

    • Matthew–thanks for posting this. While a centralized public meeting web page would be great to see on the City website, it’s important for readers to understand this is not something the Planning Department can achieve without support from all other City departments, IT, and (possibly) additional staff that the City may or may not have at this time.

  16. If this is the attitude and approach of CFA, then obviously they’re not going to be a good fit for Five Points South. I was willing to encourage them to take one of Despinakis’ vacant sites, but now I don’t want them on Southside, period. I realize that isn’t a valid, legal excuse to stop them, but they must be stopped at all costs. It’d be nice if Zaxby’s, Cheesecake Factory or Logan’s Roadhouse would jump in and offer a top-notch, contextual design for that corner.

    • Todd–this would be easier if the lot’s owners commissioned a nice, multi-tenant building fronting both 20th and Highland, with some parking behind, and then made the spaces available for lease to restaurants or other businesses. Getting one of these corporations to design a user-specific building that’s appropriate is typically just not what they do. They’ve got prototypes, not sophisticated contextual design teams.

  17. Great summary and commentary. Too bad the News is downsizing; otherwise, I’d suggest you take over John Archibald’s space.

    • Thanks, Dan. Hey, I could hardly qualify to take over Archibald’s space if the News were ever unfortunate enough to lose him. But I do think that despite the downsizing, the News has been doing a better job of digging into some of these local issues.

  18. The, hmm, “dilemma” for CFA and hundreds of other “fast-service” companies (and obviously it is OUR dilemma as well), be they restaurants, drug stores, convenience stores etc., is that their whole business model is predicated upon name and visual recognition. Their outside apprearance is everything. CFA and Walgreens, like McDonalds and all the rest, need for people to instantly recognize their businesses in an instant and at a distance — from the inside of a car.

    I really don’t think that it’s the case that their executives don’t “get it” on the urban issues, it’s that (from their point of view) it’s suicidal. CFA thinks that it can’t stay in the big league that it currently occupies (and it’s big) without preserving its cookie-cutter free-standing drive-in, just as Sonic can’t stay in business without a drive-in scenario. Some of these (Jeremy has before mentioned Rite-Aid) have bent towards a contextual design for urban sites, but this is with a lot of pressure, and not (I believe) because they have any pre-existing concern for communities or standard of living….

    Which is not to say, in the least, that anyone should cave to CFA out of sympathy for CFA. Heaven forbid. They need to be told, with the help of govt and the law, to fit in or get out. If they can’t, well, too bad for them. We will find environmentally (and socially) non-toxic business and tax revenues to take their place.

    There is a quixotic hope they will eventually change their way of thinking (and model of business), but I doubt they can, because one of the reasons they can give you their predictable (ah, that’s one of their chief selling points) food and service at low prices is that they have economy of scale on their side. They can’t afford to give you a different architectural/site design for each restaurant or store, or expend much effort on being sensitive to the local community.

    This is a perfect teaching moment for everybody and another opportunity to grow away from the bland, predictable, mass-produced, mass-marketed society that we have become, and toward a local economy, local culture, and an interesting, creative and HUMAN society. We can’t control the beast that is suburbia, but we can definitely impact our environment in Southside and the rest of the City of Birmingham and, well, hope that our new urban gospel values spread…

    The fight AGAINST CFA or WG in Southside needs to become a larger fight FOR a different way of living in general. Although we may have to content ourselves with battles over stylistic concerns for now (because of our arcane political structures), it needs to flower into something a lot bigger — changing habits, lifestyles, mindsets and the very process of governing ourselves (which is the way we’re supposed to think of it in our country).

    Bham surprised the world in the civil-rights struggle; we could surprise it again in other ways.

    • Greg, again thanks for this eloquent comment. This is indeed about more than just CFA. If the City (leaders and citizens) understood small business and local character like Austin does (Keep Austin Weird), we could indeed surprise the world in a good way.

  19. Martha Jane Patton

    Thank you, Greg, for articulating a viewpoint that the marketing world needs to hear, not only Chick-fil-A!

    Yes, Birmingham, having been burned before with the destruction of some of its finest edifices, could well become the thorn in the side of mass-marketing, fast-food, strip mall, Big Box-thinking.

  20. The Birmingham Business Journal published an editorial today saying that the city’s zoning and land use requirements lack “solid urban planning” and that we need to “go back to the drawing board” to generate a “clear vision and a true comprehensive plan” so that everyone will “know the rules” and conflicts like the current ones with Walgreen’s and Chick-Fil-A can be avoided.

    I’d love to see the city and its neighborhoods producing more “clear visions” of how they can grow and thrive. But I think if there’s anywhere that HAS been done, it’s Five Points South. The problem with Chick-Fil-A isn’t that the rules don’t reflect a comprehensive plan for the district. The problem is that Chick-Fil-A decided to completely ignore the district’s “clear vision and true comprehensive plan” because they decided it didn’t matter to them.

    • Corporations often have their own “plans” and they take precedence over local plans and wishes for sure. Most of us are so used to the ubiquity of corporate chains–and accept them as necessary components to an economy–that we don’t protest the triumph of corporate planning over local interests.

      I still feel that the conflict between zoning law and neighborhood plans (i.e. Commercial Revitalization and Historic District plans) could be somewhat eased by Form Based Code.

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