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An intense struggle between residents of Oak Park and owners of a McDonald’s franchise will come to a head Tuesday when the City Council considers allowing a new drive-thru restaurant at the corner of Stockton Boulevard and Second Avenue – directly across the street from a UC Davis Med Center obesity clinic.
“We are interested in something better for Oak Park,” Dr. Charlene Hauser, an Oak Park resident and a key member of the opposition to the project, said Friday. “We’d love to have something here that we feel would improve the neighborhood.”
But McDonald’s franchise co-owner John Ritchey said in an email statement Sunday that he feels the restaurant will benefit the area.
“We believe the new restaurant will provide our friends and neighbors in Oak Park a contemporary and comfortable dining experience,” Ritchey said in the email. “It will create much-needed jobs in a community with high unemployment and limited transportation options.”
The Planning Commission denied a special permit April 12 to build the restaurant with a drive-thru on the site, and the franchise owners filed an appeal April 26. The City Council will discuss the appeal Tuesday.
According to a city staff report, the question to City Council is not whether a McDonald’s franchise can be built at the Stockton Boulevard/Second Avenue site – city zoning rules will allow the restaurant to be built – the question is whether it may feature a drive-thru.
There could be a lot at stake for Ritchey with the council’s decision.
McDonald’s representatives declined to indicate the specific value of a drive-thru to their restaurants, but acording to a report in QSR, a trade magazine targeted at fast-food executives, drive-thru sales account for more than 60 percent of overall revenues for McDonald’s – a significant amount for a corporation that reported earnings in excess of $27 billion in 2011.
If the council denies the appeal, Ritchey will have the option to change the building design to exclude the drive-thru and resubmit the plan to the Planning Commission for approval, or the matter could go to litigation.
The special permit for the proposed drive-thru in Oak Park was denied by the Planning Commission because the restaurant design conflicts with goals of the city’s General Plan, including having a pedestrian-friendly design and creating a buffer between the restaurant and nearby residential areas, according to the city staff report.
In a letter to the City Council, Margaret Trujillo, area construction manager for McDonald’s, argued that the project would revitalize a vacant infill site and that city staff did not consider the General Plan as a whole when they denied the drive-thru permit.
“The project is appropriately located, pedestrian-oriented, aesthetically pleasing and consistent with the General Plan,” Trujillo said in the letter.
Ritchey also defended the proposed drive-thru as a positive factor for residents and customers.
“Speed and convenience are the reasons restaurants offer drive-thrus, and we’re always working to make the service faster so people spend even less time in line,” he said in the email.
Oak Park neighbors say the conflict over the proposed restaurant started in 2010 when McDonald’s representatives canvassed the neighborhood asking for input on the project.
“They showed up and asked people which design they wanted,” Hauser said. “They weren’t asking if we wanted a McDonald’s – they were asking what did we want the one they were going to build to look like. We were stunned, and that’s when we all said, ‘Hold on! What’s happening here?’ ”
Neighbors gathered at community meetings to discuss the project and phone calls, letters and emails from neighbors and neighborhood groups started pouring into City Hall – including a 275-page petition with more than 1,700 signatures submitted by Healthy Development of Oak Park, a neighborhood group that organized to oppose the McDonald’s.
The problem, according to Oak Park neighbors, is bigger than the drive-thru, however.
Residents opposed to the project questioned pedestrian safety near the restaurant, the effect on the “walkability” of the neighborhood and concerns about less-nutritional items on the McDonald’s menu in their letters and emails to the city.
Hauser, a family medicine specialist at the UC Davis Med Center, said she has seen her patients struggle on a daily basis to make good, healthy choices in their lives, and a fast-food drive-thru encourages exactly the opposite.
“I want the active choice to be the easy choice for people because it’s the healthy choice,” Hauser said.
Members of Healthy Development of Oak Park are expected to attend the City Council meeting Tuesday to protect the proposed project, according to a Friday press release. Trujillo said she and Ritchey will also attend the meeting to speak in support of the project.
“As always, McDonald’s wants to be a good neighbor no matter where we are,” Ritchey said.
The City Council will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 931, I St.