Drive-thru windows have become a part of the shopping landscape in Charlotte, as they have throughout the rest of the country.
A growing population — according to the latest census data, Mecklenburg County has 919,628 residents, up 32.2 percent since 2000 — has made the Queen City even more attractive to fast-food chains and other businesses that are apt to have a drive-thru lane.
But in a city plagued with an ozone problem, developers are learning that there is such a thing as too much when it comes to the number of drive-thrus windows they might be allowed.
This year, the city’s planning department did not back a developer’s request to feature six drive-thru windows for six separate businesses as part of a project on 20 acres along Monroe Road. The planners called for fewer windows.
So, how many drive-thru windows are city officials willing to allow per project? It’s a question that has no clear answer.
That’s because there’s no policy dictating the city’s desires for drive-thru windows, leaving developers wondering what is acceptable and the planning department examining every proposal for projects featuring drive-thru windows on a case-by-case basis.
The city’s lack of such a policy has riled up critics, some of whom are, not surprisingly, developers. Critics say no policy makes the process of granting approval to projects seem arbitrary and could leave the city open to accusations of bias.
“It’s automatically a point of conflict,” said Walter Fields, a Charlotte-based consultant who specializes in planning, zoning and land development. “There are no guidelines really to figure out where the right spot is, where it’s not and under what circumstances you can have a drive-thru. A lot of it is the personal preference of the person reviewing the plan, and if they don’t like drive-thru windows, you are going to get a hard time about drive-thru windows.”
Fields represented Roy Goode, president of Charlotte-based Goode Development Corp., in a rezoning petition for the 20-acre Monroe Road project between Idlewild Road and Conference Drive.
During a May 16 public hearing, two residents supporting the petition told the City Council that the area needed more retail and office space.
Goode says the project could begin the process of reorienting businesses along Independence Boulevard toward Monroe Road as is called for in the city’s Independence Boulevard area plan, which was adopted last month. The city hopes to transform Independence Boulevard into a regional highway with fewer access points to properties to improve transportation while directing local traffic to Monroe Road and Central Avenue.
If the rezoning is approved this month by the City Council, Goode plans to demolish the 40-year-old Silver Oaks Apartments, a 337-unit development.
He plans a six-block mixed-use development that would include 275 residential units for sale or rent. It would also include small spaces for retailers and offices.
The city’s rezoning staff rejected Goode’s proposal for six drive-thru windows, telling the City Council it wanted the project restricted to only two. In a compromise, the planning department agreed to support up to four drive-thru windows. In agreeing to back more windows, planners liked that the project included pedestrian-friendly features, such as open spaces, a short wall and buildings fronting Monroe with access for walkers and bikers, said Laura Harmon, spokeswoman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department. The drive-thru windows will be at the back of the development.
“It’s not that you can’t have a drive-thru in an urban pedestrian-oriented environment,” she said. “It’s how you do the drive-thru that matters.”
The views of a councilwoman
The features in Goode’s project could give developers an idea as to how their drive-thru projects might win the city’s blessing.
So could the opinions of Councilwoman Nancy Carter.
Mecklenburg County’s ozone levels are the poorest in the state, according to the North Carolina Division of Air Quality. Carter said the city’s poor air quality is a reason to be concerned about the exhaust that would be coughed out by vehicles lined up at more drive-thru windows. Plus, she said, federal ozone standards, which the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to raise — possibly as soon as this year — are another reason to be careful about allowing more drive-thrus.
She also points to incidents on Park Road and Monroe Road where children have been killed in traffic. Carter said the accidents were not at the site of drive-thru restaurants but still show the danger high-traffic roadways, such as those near schools, can pose to children.
“If drive-thrus are close to places that would attract youngsters, it’s not as wise,” she said. “It is a true issue for us: being responsible where we site attractive commercial uses.”
Carter said there are “stacking” problems at some drive-thru businesses in Charlotte, such as the Randolph Road Chick-fil-A, where traffic backs up into the road during lunchtime. A Bojangles’ on Randolph Road also causes traffic to pile up during breakfast, she said.
“That’s true over on Woodlawn (Road) as well,” she said, referring to another Chick-fil-A drive-thru restaurant. “We need to be sure where stacking can occur to have a maximum capacity arrangement. That’s important.”
Carter said that while she’s glad to see developers are interested in commercial investment in the Monroe Road area, she wants to protect the neighborhood’s character.
“We don’t want to recreate Independence (Boulevard) on Monroe,” she said.
The views of a councilman
Councilman Andy Dulin, though, was less concerned about the number of drive-thrus Goode proposed.
“This early in the game, I thought it was too heavy-handed for staff to say, ‘Sorry, we’ve got too many drive-thrus,'” he said.
Dulin is familiar with community opposition to drive-thrus. His district, 5, includes the contentious Quail Corners redevelopment plan on Park Road.
That project, which was approved by the council in April with Dulin’s support, called for a fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru window.
It pitted developer Crosland, which is hoping to use profits from the restaurant to improve the existing shopping center, against neighborhood groups, including the Quail Hollow Homeowners Association, which opposed the idea of a drive-thru restaurant.
Crosland had signed an agreement in 1979 that they would not add a fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru window at Quail Corners. Despite that agreement, the company tried unsuccessfully in 1996 to add such a restaurant to the site, then successfully lobbied for the project this year.
“That Park Road strip is the largest Republican voting block in the city,” said Dulin, a Republican. “That is my base. I did not get any pleasure out of voting against the wishes of those vocal opponents, but I did what I thought was right, regardless of the political pain.”
Dulin said he received calls from many people who supported the project.
“They said they don’t see what the big deal is,” he said.
‘We make a judgment call’
When a developer comes to the planning department looking for approval for a drive-thru, the department weighs multiple factors, Harmon said. Those include impacts to land and water and whether the drive-thru would fit within areas that are supposed to be more pedestrian-friendly.
“And we make a judgment call on what is the right number of drive-thru windows,” she said.
But Carter thinks that approach could be improved upon.
“The intent is to have us look at the issue and make a reasonable recommendation so people don’t have to be negotiating every time they come before us,” she said.
Harmon said the city is looking into Carter’s recommendation, but coming up with a policy that applies to every case will be tough.
“I think the difficulty is that every site is different,” she said. “There are factors that could be looked at. The policy would be more about those factors as opposed to something definitive.”
Goode, for one, is hoping the city enacts a policy for drive-thrus.
“Because, again, each time a drive-thru comes into a zoning case, it commands a high level of scrutiny,” he said. “If there was a policy framed around drive-thrus, it would be a lot clearer for the city and the development community on their expectations.”
Carter said she does not want to ban drive-thrus altogether.
“We all have busy active lifestyles, and we need conveniences,” she said. “We don’t need to cut out drive-thru windows completely.”
Tara Ramsey can be reached at [email protected].