September 4, 2002

McDonald's Corp. refused to back off from a controversial plan to replace its restaurant on Philadelphia Pike at Harvey Road in Claymont with one of so-called 'classic' design despite being severely buffeted by community residents and members of the county Planning Board at a public hearing. Virtually the sole objection -- albeit a strong, and possibly overriding, one -- was the proposed architecture.

As the session on Sept. 3 drew to close, board chairman Victor Singer pressed the company's project manager, Michael Carr, about whether that intent was "fixed." After several repetitions of the question, Carr responded affirmatively, explaining that the fast-food business is "very competitive these days" and that the company wants "to stand out [and] be known as McDonald's."

McDonald's 'classic' is largely a copy of what much of the original the chain looked like in the 1950s -- complete with a brightly painted red-and-white exterior and 'golden arches' extending above the roof on both sides -- modified to include such current features as drive-up windows. There is no intent to go back to '50s menus or prices.

Carr said earlier in the hearing, "This is the building we are proposing for the site."

There was an indication, however, that the Department of Land Use, which has the final say in whether a redevelopment proposal such as McDonald's can go forward, might require the company to rethink that position in consultation with community leaders and organizations. Charles Baker, general manager of the department, said that the intent of the redevelopment ordinance -- which he was instrumental in drafting -- is to "have applicants work with the community to develop a [mutually] beneficial plan" which addresses "what [is] really important to their neighbors."

The hearing was told that did not happen with regard to the pending application. Carr said that McDonald's developed its plan after consulting with the land use department and had presented it as a completed proposal at meetings of the Claymont Community Coalition and the Claymont Renaissance committee in August. George Lossé, president of the coalition, testified that was the first airing of the plan. "They came in and said, 'This is what we're presenting and it meets all the requirements [of the law] and that's it'," he said.

Carr, who is based in suburban Philadelphia, apologized for not informing Thomas Comitta, the Claymont Renaissance town-planning consultant, but said that he was unaware that formal consultation with community organizations and leaders was required by the law. He acknowledged that the August meetings were the only public presentations of the proposal, but added that the company had spoken with neighboring property owners. Nick Roberts, who lives around the corner on Grubbs Landing Road, testified that he was not contacted.

Carr attempted to defuse the architectural issue by claiming before public testimony was taken that it was irrelevant to the company's application to tear down the existing company-owned and -managed building, which dates back to 1979, and put up a new one while bringing the property into closer conformity with present-day standards set by the Unified Development Code. Having been turned down on a similar propose when it sought several enabling variances from the Board of Adjustment in 2000, McDonald's has reapplied under the redevelopment ordinance amendments to the code enacted early this year.

Board member Mark Weinberg took issue with that position, saying that the amended code requires "weighing various [property improvement] elements against community desires" and that, although not specifically stated in the code, architectural features are a legitimate part of that evaluation. "What the site looks like is certainly relevant," he said.

Obviously timed to the hearing was a last-minute publicity effort to promote the nostalgic appeal of a 'classic' restaurant and to insist that they are proving popular where they have been added to the chain.

Weinberg got Carr to acknowledge that there are about 50 of that kind, out of a total of 17,000 company-owned and franchised outlets, around the country. He had told the earlier Claymont meetings that there were about a dozen. That, Weinberg said, shows "there is nothing that said all McDonald's have to look alike."

Lossé said, "We've seen buildings they've designed to suit other places. Why not [in] Claymont?"

While describing the importance of a '50s look in McDonald's marketing scheme, Carr admitted that he had not, in Singer's words, "look[ed] up the financial performances" of outlets in Maryland and New Jersey which objectors had cited as examples of architectural styles they consider more in keeping with what the Claymont Renaissance effort envisions for a redeveloped Philadelphia Pike.

Carr maintained that "our customers like that [style] and would like to see [such a building] go up." He said 150 supporters had signed a 'petition' to that effect at the Claymont establishment.

No one at the hearing except Carr and the company's engineer, Michael Jeigner, spoke in favor of the proposal.

Contrary to usual practice at such sessions, the strongest criticism came from Planning Board member Joseph Maloney, who told Carr his attitude was "nothing but cavalier" and described him as "a perfect example of corporate arrogance."

"You should make an effort to get along with these people," Maloney said.

A parade of Claymont residents who testified were more restrained in their criticism. In fact, apart from its architectural features, they seemed to endorse the overall plan. "We don't have any problem with the [proposed] improvements," Lossé said.

"We're not against McDonald's. We don't want to lose McDonald's [or] any of our businesses," he said. "The kids in Claymont would hate me if I kicked McDonald's out."

Philip Lavelle, zoning chairman of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, supported the coalition's position, testifying that the planned design "is going to result in a future hardship to the community."

"It may be a fad when it is built, but in future years it's going to be an eyesore," said resident Brett Saddler.

Delores Whildin suggested that McDonald's borrow a page from competitor Burger King's sales pitch and tell the community, "You can have it your way."

A concurrent theme at the hearing was the slowly emerging but still unclear process for dealing with redevelopment petitions. The McDonald's application is only the third to come forward and is the first to involve controversy.

McDonald's petition claimed credit for elements of the proposal resulting in a '1,487% improvement' to the site. Board member Fritz Griesinger pointed out that 800% evidently would be gained by landscaping. "You're getting an awful lot for [planting] five trees," he said.

The law calls for measuring proposals which improve a property but do not bring it up to code standards by totaling percentages of how close improvements come to meeting minimum standards in categories related to such things as setbacks, buffer zones, parking, landscaping, stormwater management and the like. The minimum requirement is 400 percentage points, with the understanding that, theoretically, no single element can be improved greater than 100% and, therefore, four elements must be improved. McDonald's, however, claimed credits of as much as 300% in some categories.

Griesinger said he interpreted the law to mean that an applicant had to come up to code standard in at least four categories but that was not the consensus of other board members.

Baker acknowledged to Delaforum that, in addition to its obvious semantics problem, the measurement system does not actually measure improvement. If, for instance, a given element, such as the number of parking spaces, is presently 50% of what the code requires and the proposal improves that to 60%, the applicant can claim credit for 60%, not 10%.

Apart from that, he told the hearing, "I don't think we're in complete agreement with [McDonald's] calculations." He did not elaborate.

Baker's department has the final say over whether a redevelopment proposal can go forward. The Planning Board's role apparently is limited to providing a forum for compiling an official record of opinions regarding proposals. Singer noted that the law does not require it to make a recommendation for or against approval of a plan but that it evidently is free to do so if it wishes.

Because McDonald's plans to replace an existing nonconforming structure of about 4,000 square feet, including basement, with one having 3,456 square feet, and no basement, it is being handled as a minor subdivision plan, which does not require County Council approval.

It is unclear how it is meant for the public to keep track of proposals as they move though the approval process. Baker told Delaforum that the department's decisions are filed in the recorder of deeds' office. Apparently no public announcements are to be made and the department's public information officer said it would be impractical to issue them for every case that goes through the department or to determine which applications were of sufficient public interest to justify announcements.

© 2002. All rights reserved.

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