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No Drive-Through in My Driveway

The Colonel ruffles feathers in Golden Hill

Golden Hill Kentucky Fried Chicken.  "People don't like getting out of their cars. Drive-throughs are more convenient for disabled persons, the elderly, and mothers with children."
  • Golden Hill Kentucky Fried Chicken. "People don't like getting out of their cars. Drive-throughs are more convenient for disabled persons, the elderly, and mothers with children."
  • Image by Joe Klein

The fast-food vendor that owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell is concocting a new recipe for San Diego's Golden Hill community. Tricon Global Restaurants Inc. proposes to rebuild its aging Kentucky Fried Chicken into a bigger, more attractive eatery featuring such amenities as public restrooms, outdoor dining, landscaping, and an expanded menu that would include Taco Bell fare.

Cindy Ireland: "It's big business basically bullying a smaller community."

Cindy Ireland: "It's big business basically bullying a smaller community."

Although the $1.2 million, Art Deco-style replacement may look appetizing on architectural renderings -- especially compared with the stale, decades-old, boxlike structure -- one ingredient is giving some Golden Hill residents indigestion. Adding a drive-through lane and window at 2496 Broadway would violate the neighborhood's planned-district ordinance, which governs commercial and multiresidential development and construction. Tricon, a multibillion-dollar corporation, is scheduled to seek an amendment to the ordinance today, Thursday, March 2, at a hearing of the San Diego Planning Commission.

What baffles Kathryn Willetts is Tricon used to operate a Taco Bell restaurant with a drive-through several blocks away on Market Street.

What baffles Kathryn Willetts is Tricon used to operate a Taco Bell restaurant with a drive-through several blocks away on Market Street.

"I don't want a drive-through four blocks from my home," said Bonnie Poppe. The community volunteer and property owner is among dozens of Golden Hill residents who fear that if an exception were made for Tricon, other fast-food chains would make similar requests. They predict the pressure to carve out more exceptions to Golden Hill's 1989 rules prohibiting drive-through facilities would increase now that the City of San Diego and the Padres are proceeding to build a new baseball stadium within two miles of Golden Hill.

"I feel sure this is connected to the ballpark. The KFC is only a few blocks from a freeway exit on the way downtown," said Poppe, who envisions sports fans driving through Golden Hill to avoid freeway congestion, picking up buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and tossing the trash into people's yards. "Golden Hill Park was the first part of Balboa Park that was developed back in the 1890s. We feel the entrance to the oldest part of Balboa Park shouldn't be lined with fast-food outlets."

The downtown ballpark didn't influence Tricon's plans for Golden Hill, company officials say, noting the idea of a drive-through dates back to 1989, the year the neighborhood first banned such facilities via an emergency ordinance from the San Diego City Council. Tricon resumed pushing for a drive-through in 1996. "This is the '90s," said W. David Martin, former market coach for 15 company-owned Kentucky Fried Chickens in San Diego County, including the Golden Hill site. A few weeks ago, Tricon transferred Martin to Memphis, Tennessee. "People don't like getting out of their cars. Drive-throughs are more convenient for disabled persons, the elderly, and mothers with children," Martin said. "It's not a matter of bringing more folks to the neighborhood. We want to better serve our existing customers."

In addition, drive-through service would increase the restaurant's sales by 20 percent, Martin estimated. The average annual sales of a Kentucky Fried Chicken total $817,000, but the Golden Hill location is below average, said David Luxton, a Tricon construction manager in Irvine. "The economic reality is to upgrade the site. KFC needs to increase income into this site," Martin said. "One way is adding Taco Bell, and another is adding a drive-through." Otherwise, Tricon is likely to abandon Golden Hill, Martin said, where it owns the 1968 building but rents the underlying land on a month-to-month lease.

Tricon's "my way or no way" stance is expected to make today's planning commission hearing a penultimate showdown for "the Colonel." If the commission were to uphold the rules prohibiting drive-throughs, Tricon would likely appeal, taking its request to the San Diego City Council later this year. If the commission were to allow a drive-through, neighborhood activists would protest that decision, which would require the city council to change Golden Hill's planned district ordinance. Staff members of San Diego's Planning and Development Review Department recommend denial of Tricon's amendment but approve the project without a drive-through.

"It's big business basically bullying a smaller community," said Cindy Ireland, chairperson of the Greater Golden Hill Community Planning Committee, the advisory group instrumental in prohibiting drive-through facilities in 1989. As co-chair of the Coalition Advocating Redevelopment Excellence, CARE, Ireland also opposes the inadequate planning of a taxpayer-subsidized baseball stadium downtown, a project that threatens to overwhelm Golden Hill with clogged traffic, parking shortages, trash, noise, and other pollution. A hearing on the coalition's lawsuit against the Padres and the city is scheduled for Monday, March 6.

While Ireland acknowledges the ballpark looms as a greater threat to Golden Hill than Tricon's proposal, she sees the adverse consequences of one project exacerbating the other. "We have concerns about providing fast-food conveniences in close proximity to downtown, in close proximity to the freeway, so that people can bounce off the freeway and grab something on their way through the community -- which doesn't really benefit the community, but it certainly benefits a particular business. It increases our traffic, the litter, and some of the concerns we already have with that ballpark project."

Construction of fast-food outlets, with or without drive-through windows, has pitted ordinary citizens against big chains throughout California.

Carlsbad, for example, outlawed drive-through restaurants in 1997. "People finally got fed up," Michael W. Grim, a city senior planner, said, referring to problems of traffic, parking, noisy squawk boxes, blaring lights, and garbage. In 1998, San Juan Capistrano imposed a moratorium on new fast-food establishments to protect the town's residential neighborhoods and historic charm. Burbank, Newport Beach, Sierra Madre, and South Pasadena are among towns that have taken similar action, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Carmel and Pacific Grove heavily restrict fast-food, too, said Toni Gaylord, executive director of Coronado Main Street, a National Trust for Historic Preservation program dedicated to maintaining the character of old downtown neighborhoods. Gaylord researched the issue to help Coronado draft its own fast-food rules in 1995 and modify them in 1997. Coronado prohibits drive-through restaurants and limits the number of what it calls "formula fast-food restaurants" to ten sites, but the regulations don't apply to military property. A proliferation of chains not only can strip a community of its personality, Gaylord said, but it also can inflate commercial real estate prices beyond the reach of small business owners.

Anne Riedman, a real estate investment broker who works in Golden Hill, said drive-throughs clash with the neighborhood's goal to create a pedestrian-oriented community. "Whenever you have a drive-through restaurant, it's certainly not easy to walk [near them]. We've worked very hard for years to improve the community. There's no reason to amend the plan for their profitability," said Riedman, who served on the Greater Golden Hill Community Planning Committee during the 1980s. "What I find interesting is ten years ago they said it was not financially feasible to not have a drive-through, and they've been operating there for ten years."

What baffles Kathryn Willetts is Tricon used to operate a Taco Bell restaurant with a drive-through several blocks away on Market Street. "Why would they give up that location where drive-throughs are allowed and pursue another where drive-throughs are prohibited?" asked Willetts, an architectural designer and real estate agent. "To me that's a complete disregard for the community's investment in itself," she said, noting that concerned Golden Hill residents such as herself spent many hours to help draft an ordinance that would improve the neighborhood's quality of life. "Perhaps Tricon wouldn't be interested in spending so much money if there weren't a ballpark. Perhaps other chains are waiting in the wings."

Tricon's proposal to modify Golden Hill's ban on drive-through facilities is carefully worded so only two other parcels along 25th Street might qualify for such development. And, says Rebecca Michael, a San Diego lawyer representing Tricon, one of those properties would be ineligible because it is too close to the other. But opponents, such as Ireland, Poppe, Riedman, and Willetts, say breaking the rules for Kentucky Fried Chicken sets a precedent for other chains and might make the city vulnerable to a lawsuit alleging discriminatory spot zoning. However, certain sections of La Jolla, Old Town, Pacific Beach, and San Diego heavily regulate drive-through service and fast-food establishments in piecemeal fashion.

"There's a tremendous upside from our perspective that's being overlooked," Martin said, noting the four-year quest to replace Golden Hill's Kentucky Fried Chicken may set a company record. In contrast, getting approval last year to rebuild Pacific Beach's KFC with drive-through amenities took four months, and the eatery is scheduled to open this spring. A new restaurant in Golden Hill would create 25 new jobs, which would most likely be staffed with neighborhood residents, Martin said. "There's an opportunity for more employment, above the minimum wage. There's the chance for revitalization, rebeautification. That's what we want here."

Harmon O. Nelson III, chief financial officer of Wieber-Nelson Design Inc., is among Golden Hill residents, business owners, and community volunteers who support Tricon. When the environmental graphic designer served as chairman of the Greater Golden Hill Community Planning Committee several years ago, he favored the Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-through, but the committee did not change the rules. "KFC bent over backwards to address every concern," Nelson said. The company agreed to limit the new restaurant's hours of operation, create outdoor seating, and remove the unsightly bucket towering overhead. More importantly, Nelson said, the company redesigned the building twice to make it more aesthetically pleasing and blend with some of the neighborhood's older structures. Luxton of Tricon estimated the company has spent about $30,000 on architectural plans and presentations, and that expense is expected to reach $60,000 before construction.

"It will make the property so much nicer," Nelson said. "We renovated this building in 1993, and we saw what a difference it made to fix up one building," he added, referring to his office, the purple Art Union Building at 2323 Broadway. From his perspective, extra traffic resulting from a drive-through eatery is insignificant compared with the thousands of baseball enthusiasts projected to drive through Golden Hill, Sherman Heights, and other neighborhoods. "It's just a few people who have tried to make the drive-through controversial. I think their energies should be focused more on the ballpark."

Golden Hill resident Russell Draper said he opposes both projects. "The baseball stadium is absolute insanity. The parking and traffic problems will be horrendous for Golden Hill," he said, recalling that the environmental impact report describes the possibility of three-hour traffic jams. "25th and Broadway is the heart of Golden Hill. Putting a drive-through there changes the character of the neighborhood. It just brings in extra traffic. It encourages people to idle in their cars. There are big battles and little battles. They're both important."

Like other owners of Mexican restaurants in Golden Hill, Francisco Diaz is not concerned about Tricon's plans to add Taco Bell to its Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. "Taco Bell is imitation Mexican food," said Diaz, who owns Humberto's Taco Shop nearby. "They don't have the ambiance or the music. I don't really feel it's competition." However, Diaz said, allowing one business to add drive-through service doesn't seem fair. "I wish I had a drive-through. I would get 35 percent more business. A lot of people don't like to get out of their cars."

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