Today was the first of 3 public hearings of the special Appeals Board hearing Chick-Fil-A‘s appeal of the Design Review Committee‘s unanimous decision to deny the construction of a stand-alone restaurant and drive-through at the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South in the heart of Five Points South. 3 1/2 hours later, here’s the (longish) report:
1. Attorney Charlie Beavers, representing Chick-Fil-A, reduces the case to a fundamental question: did the DRC have the right to deny this project based on its proposed use? Answer: no, it did not. The use is allowed by current zoning and the DRC overstepped its bounds. He then proceeds to argue that, beyond this simple fact, Chick-Fil-A bent over backwards to modify its design numerous times, resulting in a very urban and appropriate design. At least according to Mr. Beavers.
2. Erwin Reed, Vice-President of Chick-Fil-A in charge of real estate, then states his corporation “doesn’t like to come to neighborhoods where we are not wanted.” He assures the chamber (about 50 people in all) that once it was built, the neighbors would love the place.
3. The opposition now has a chance to state its views. Attorney Alton Parker stands to contend the plan as drawn is suburban both in style and traffic accommodation, and therefore is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. “Why does Chick-Fil-A insist on doing something so opposed by the neighborhood? Why insist on the drive-through?” [Note: both the Commercial Revitalization District and National Register designation papers, which were adopted as city ordinance, call for development in the neighborhood to be complementary and consistent with the historic, pedestrian character of the place; it is on these ordinances which the DRC based their ruling.]
Mike Calvert, president of Operation New Birmingham, states that he has 40 years of experience as an urban planner and expert witness on the topic, and this plan neither conforms to the City Center Master Plan nor to the Five Points South Revitalization Plan, and the DRC ruling should be upheld.
Bob Moody, adjacent property owner for 30 years, asks the board to uphold the ruling.
Frank Stitt, Alabama’s and one of the South’s most famed restaurateurs, states he loves Chick-Fil-A, but a drive-through is not appropriate on this site.
James Little, president of the Five Points South Merchant group, reminds the board that both his group and the Neighborhood Association approved (non-binding) resolutions opposing the current plan. He also states that Chick-Fil-A itself has admitted it needs a more “urban” prototype for pedestrian neighborhoods, and is implementing a pilot program in Chicago. He mentions the long lines at local suburban Chick-Fil-A outlets, and how this tight urban site can’t accommodate such traffic.
Joseph Baker, organizer of I Believe in Birmingham, speaks passionately about the urban nature of the neighborhood, how we can’t put inappropriate uses into these special areas, and that corporations are not citizens. And if they go against the will of citizens, a boycott will be announced.
Betty Bock speaks about traffic nightmares if the plan were allowed.
Libby Rich says Chick-Fil-A is “a wonderful corporation. But this is our neighborhood. You [Chick-Fil-A] have overstepped your bounds.”
Ron Council points out the plan drawing only shows the property with almost no context, i.e. it leaves out all the historic structures around the intersection. More traffic woes for elderly people who walk or use wheelchairs on the sidewalks and must cross curb cuts.
Alison Glascock, Highland Park Neighborhood president, states she is not anti-corporation, but wants corporations to listen to the neighborhoods in which they locate. She regrets this situation has become “us vs. them.”
4. Charlie Beavers now stands up for Chick-Fil-A to rebut. He mentions the company’s traffic engineers have studied the site and are satisfied it will be fine. He insists this is indeed an urban design. He again asks the Board to overturn the DRC.
5. Greg Despinakas stands on behalf of the owner (who would lease the land to Chick-Fil-A). This is perhaps the most colorful moment: in a fiery, preacher-like sermon, he declares this project would be a “God-given enhancement to the neighborhood.” Which he then describes as deteriorating, filled with “…miscreants. And head shops. And tattoo parlors. Broken glass. Piercing shops. Graffiti.” Even…saloons! He then dramatically turns to the audience and says. “Clean it up! Before you tell Chick-Fil-A what to do, clean up your own neighborhood!”
6. It’s now question time from the Board. How many customers will be served? 250-300,000 annually, about 50% of which is drive-through. Why this site? Because it maximizes our investment. Can you survive without a drive-through? We could, but this would not meet our financial expectations. How can you assure us that stacked cars waiting for the drive-through won’t be a nightmare at peak times? Trust us. We are the fastest drive-through in the US and we’ll hire traffic directors at peak times if required.
7. Executive Session. For maybe 30 minutes. Break time. Milling around, some wary hellos between camps, but mainly each sticks to his own.
8. Board returns. They ask the hours of store operation (6AM-10PM M-T; 6AM-11PM F,Sat; closed Sun). They announce the next public hearing is 8:30 AM Friday June 18, Room 215 City Hall. But no more public comments on that date; it’s just deliberation with public observation. One more important item: the board asks City staff to provide updated traffic counts for that intersection by Friday morning. With current budget woes at the City, there are not exactly extra bodies sitting around to count traffic. Here’s wishing staff good luck with this request!
So that’s it for now–stay tuned.
The takeaway? We need a form-based code for this neighborhood (and others)! Pronto. No one wants to sit through this again, trust me.
[thanks to southernpixel for the shot of Frank Fleming’s sculpture at Five Points fountain]