An impassioned defense of an urban neighborhood
What happens when you put Poulet Rouge on the same platter next to Chick-n-Strips? Well, we learned the answer this past Wednesday when Frank Stitt, chef/owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez FonFon, and Bottega Restaurant and Cafe, spoke eloquently against a proposed redevelopment of the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street into a drive-through Chick-Fil-A Restaurant (he’s pictured above addressing the City’s Design Review Committee). His reasoning (echoed by other merchants present as well as the president of the Five Points Merchants’ Group): 1. The alley which accesses the drive-through queue is an active alley used for deliveries for his restaurants; 2. Car traffic will increase, possibly dangerously, at an already busy intersection; 3. The fumes of idling cars and the noise from the “squawk box” will affect not only his diners at the patio across the alley but the elderly lady who lives in one of the last remaining Victorian mansions on Highland Avenue next door; and 4. A drive-through is incompatible to an historic, vibrantly pedestrian neighborhood. Of course Number 4 is the most important reason for everyone to be concerned about this sort of proposal, regardless of whether you plan to dig into Moules-Frites across the alley or not.
I’d like to set the record straight here. Over on the al.com blog there’s been a lively discussion about Frank Stitt and his opposition to the development (you can see it here). First, Frank was only the most famous of other merchants and neighbors who all stood to speak against the idea of a drive-through. Second, Jim Little, who heads the Five Points South Merchants Group, also stood to express his organization’s disapproval. Third, I’ve spoken personally with Frank Stitt and he is clear: he, and his fellow merchants and neighbors, are not opposing Chick-Fil-A. They are opposing a drive-through.
The argument is not about haute cuisine vs. the mass market
This in fact is a rather populist protest against an Atlanta-based corporation wanting to impose a suburban design on a neighborhood that’s one of the most urban we have. So charges of elitism/arrogance, in my opinion, are best directed at the corporation–not at the neighborhood.
The argument is about preserving urban character against a suburban-style assault
Now let me try to briefly explain the options available to resolve the situation. This property is located in an official Commercial Revitalization District, as well as in an Historic District listed on the National Register. Any proposed alteration or change to property in such districts must come before the Design Review Committee. The DRC, however, must abide by City zoning law in making its approvals. In Birmingham’s zoning code, drive-through facilities are allowed in all commercial areas without restriction. Therefore, the DRC, while its members appeared unanimous in their opposition to a drive-through, cannot in the end stop it. They have to follow the current zoning rules.
What could be done to help this situation? Three things come to mind:
1. The City amends its zoning code (as other cities have done recently) to restrict new drive-through facilities in certain areas (grandfathering extant facilities).
2 The City adopts a Form-Based Code. Such a code provides regulations beyond the normal zoning code, to help better shape development especially in key areas of a city. Part of this new code could restrict drive-throughs in certain areas. (The town of Seaside, Fl. was the first example of a modern form-based code. See this interesting illustration of form-based code principles here, from the new code adopted recently in Miami).
3. The City creates a Redevelopment Authority. Such an authority typically has the ability to develop urban design plans, acquire and/or promote key properties for redevelopment in accordance with the plans, and act as the developer in certain instances, sometimes in conjunction with private investors or developers.
4. The Five Points Historic District organizing papers are amended to specifically prevent drive-throughs within the district.
Based on discussions I have had with people familiar with the above options, our City lacks the political will to implement either a Form-Based Code, a zoning change, or a Redevelopment Authority (in part due to opposition from local developers who imagine such changes would be bad for business). Such lack of political will, matched with opposition from the development community, keeps our city from progressing like other cities which have one or more of those tools at their disposal.
And in the meantime, drive-through or not, a very prominent corner in the heart of a diverse, pedestrian-friendly district is getting a free-standing, suburban-style building surrounded by a sea of parking. As Cheryl Morgan of Auburn’s Urban Studio put it, “parking spaces don’t produce revenue.” The neighborhood, visitors, and the City would be much better served if a higher and better use were contemplated for this site, one that included multiple tenants opening directly on the sidewalks, with limited parking in the rear. This is one rare part of town where people get out of their car and walk, as Frank Stitt pointed out. Here’s hoping Chick-Fil-A will listen hard to this community and reconsider this plan.
Let's keep it urban!
[thanks to cathydanh for the Highlands dinner plate, jreed for the Chick-Fil-A sandwich, and Five Points South Merchant’s Group for the overhead view of the site and surroundings]