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Appeal of McDonald’s Variance to be Decided Today

June 21, 2006 Ald Jennifer Florida, McDonald's on Grand, Planning & Design, Politics/Policy, South City Comments Off on Appeal of McDonald’s Variance to be Decided Today

The McDonald’s relocation on Grand issue will likely be decided by the Board of Adjustment today. I’ve written so much about this issue to date it is hard to continue but I am sure many of you are tired of reading about it. Again, it will soon be over (barring any lawsuit depending upon the Board of Adjustment’s decision).

Here is the short summary to get you caught up if you are just joining us. The McDonald’s located on the corner of Grand & Chippewa (3737 S. Grand) since 1974 is looking to relocate to the other side of Grand on the site of the old Sears store (@ Winnebego, 3708 S. Grand). This places the McDonald’s in a different neighborhood than where it is currently as well as placing it on a corner with a minor residential street rather than being on a major corner.

Today I want to focus on a few points: Issuance of a variance to the zoning code and the design issues involved.

First the idea of a variance.

Prior court cases have determined in zoning matters “the authority to grant a variance should be exercised sparingly and only under exceptional circumstances.” The City of St. Louis acknowledges this from a 1994 court decision:

Authority to grant variance from zoning requirements should be exercised sparingly and in keeping with spirit of zoning plan and public welfare. Arens v. City of St. Louis, 872 S.W. 2d 631 (1994).

You see, the city has no obligation to grant a property owner a variance from the code. A variance is usually granted in the case of a hardship or that without the variance the property would not be able to be used at all. If the Board of Adjustment were to be “in keeping with the spirit of the zoning plan” they’d look at the redevelopment plan for the area which specifically prohibited drive-thru service windows.

A restaurant asking for a variance to the zoning to allow a drive-thru window is not reason enough to grant their request. The courts have agreed.

The zoning administrator failed to exercise good judgment when originally granting the variance. The “substantial and competent” evidence does not support allowing a drive-thru at this location. Numerous people testified that it would harm the “health, safety and welfare” of the public. Furthermore, the zoning administrator, either knowingly or carelessly, characterized letters from Mayor Slay, State Sen. Coleman and State Rep. Daus as being in support of the project. This was untrue, their letters were strictly in support of a new project on the current location of the McDonald’s (see post). The zoning administrator ignore the original evidence presented on February 19, 2006.

If the Board of Adjustment upholds the variance this afternoon I believe they will be acting politically rather than rendering a sound judgement based on evidence presented. We can look at the “F” Neighborhood Commercial District zoning (see code) to see what the spirit of the code truly is:

26.40.015 Purpose.

The purpose of the “F” Neighborhood Commercial District is to establish and preserve those commercial and professional facilities that are especially useful in close proximity to residential areas. The district is designed to provide convenient shopping and servicing establishments for persons residing in the immediate neighborhood to satisfy those basic home and personal shopping and service needs which occur frequently and so require retail and service facilities in relative proximity to places of residence, so long as such uses are compatible with and do not detract from adjacent residential uses. (Ord. 62588 § 5 (part), 1992.)

Clearly, this zoning district is not intended to be a regional auto-centric area but instead a draw for the “immediate neighborhood.” Well, the immediate neighborhood, Gravois Park, doesn’t need or desire a drive-thru restaurant.

Before you tell me these people bought next to a commercial district and they should expect this sort of thing please consider the following, the “F” Neighborhood Commercial District permits many uses:

A. Any use permitted in the “E” Multiple-Family Dwelling District;

B. Art galleries and studios;

C. Bakery Shop;

D. Barber and beauty shops;

E. Bed and breakfast guesthouse, subject to the provisions of Chapter (B.B. 355);

F. Bed and breakfast homestay, subject to the provisions of Chapter (B.B. 355);

G. Bed and breakfast inn, subject to the provisions of Chapter (B.B. 355);

H. Bookstores;

I. Butchershops;

J. Computer stores;

K. Drug stores;

L. Dry cleaning stations (not having on-site processing);

M. Financial institutions;

N. Florists;

O. General offices;

P. Grocery and other retail stores;

Q. Hardware stores;

R. Professional offices;

S. Shoe repair shops;

T. Video and record stores;

U. Mixed uses which include any of the permitted residential and commercial uses;

So while it is reasonable for the residents of Gravois Park to expect any or all of the above uses in the commercial zoning area along Grand, you’ll note a restaurant is not one of them. In fact, in the “F” Commercial District opening any restaurant requires a variance. In this case McDonald’s is requesting two variances — a restaurant and a drive-thru service window.

This is not about being next to a commercial district. For example, I’m sure many of the residents would love to see an urban storefront building on the site in question with an art gallery, hardware store, a florist and bakery — all uses that do not require any variance. Furthermore, I believe most would welcome a restaurant of any type so long as it does not have drive-thru service & excessive parking which comes with noise, trash and light pollution (from parking lot lights).

Also of note are the other uses that require a variance in the “F” Neighborhood Commercial District: bars and taverns, liquor stores, parking lots, private clubs or lodges, theaters and gas stations. I guess we are supposed to be thankful a liquor store didn’t want to relocate to the old Sears site.

Variances from zoning are a necessary evil. Sometimes the letter of the code is too restrictive to a property owner and it is reasonable to grand them a variance so as not to create a situation of hardship. The lot in question is roughly 40,000sf (200ft x 200ft) — not granting a variance for a drive-thru window will not render this vacant land unusable.

Proponents of the project; Ald. Jennifer Florida, Pyramid Construction and McDonald’s; have all argued the McDonald’s will close if they are not allowed to relocate from their current site to this site. They say, they cannot possibly reconstruct a McDonald’s on the current site. This is simply untrue, and I’ve proven as much.

If you care to review the various drawings you should probably start with McDonald’s original proposal. Then you can take a look at their revised proposal prepared for today’s hearing. They had indicated at the last year, through Ald. Jennifer Florida, the revised design would comply with what is considered one of the best guides to integrating drive-thru facilities in urban areas, The Toronto Urban Design Guidelines (large file).

Sadly what they have proposed represents only a minor attempt to satisfy concerns about urban design — they basically moved the building close to one of two streets and made a few other improvements. However, this revised design fails miserably compared to the standards. For a point by point analysis of the revised design vs. the Toronto standards click here.

Perhaps you say it can’t be done. Well, a local licensed architect was kind enough to prepare a couple of examples of placing the new standard McDonald’s building on the site in a more urban fashion more closely following the Toronto standards. See Alternate #1 and Alternate #2. Both are similar with parking toward the back while #1 has a second building facing Grand. You may think that is a long way to walk from the parking to the McDonald’s but in reality those arriving by car will most likely use the drive-thru. By eliminating both curb cuts on Grand this leaves on-street parking intact and reduces conflicts with traffic exiting the site as well as Winnebego.

But what about their current site? Again, I believe they can rebuild on the current site. Yes, it will require a retaining wall to create a more level site but I don’t think they can argue financial hardship. Click here to see the standard McDonald’s building sited on their existing location in an urban fashion. This location even permits them the ability to construct the new building while the current restaurant remains open.

And if McDonald’s choses to rebuild on their current site then Pyramid could build senior housing on the old Sears site, see concept.

The Board of Adjustment will once again take up this issue at 1:30pm today in Room 208 of City Hall. I hope they do the right thing and follow the spirit of the code and deny the variance (grant the appeal). They should see the overwhelming public opposition, the substantial evidence questioning the health, safety and welfare of the public as well as numerous alternative solutions.

– Steve


Ald. Florida Calls Urban Review a “Stupid Blog”

Yes, in today’s Post-Dispatch Ald. Florida says, “It took me half an hour to find his stupid blog.” Stupid? Even those that often disagree with my views would most likely not characterize this site as stupid — as in “lacking intelligence or common sense” per one dictionary I consulted. I won’t even comment on taking a half hour to find my blog…

What I think Ald. Florida, and so many other elected officials find frustrating, is they no longer control the flow of information. In the old days, they’d go to neighborhood meetings and tell people A) as little as possible and B) what they wanted to hear. Few citizens would talk to each other about a proposal so even if some thought a plan was a bad idea they had no clue if they were the only ones that felt that way. If they thought it was bad they were not sure how to go about changing or stopping a proposal. Neighborhood newsletters did little to change things because by the time word got around the deals were done. Email had a big impact but only if you had a good list of contacts or an active listserve. A searchable website, on the other hand, is perfect for communicating to the masses. I have more readers each month than an alderman has total constituents.

Society today is increasingly interested in urbanity. Many are realizing the “suburban experiment” is nearly over and an urban existence is the way to go. My site and others provides a timely forum for discussion and debate of these relevant issues. Again, our elected officials are basically left out of the discussion because they continue to hold on to the way things were done when they were first elected. Many are a good two decades behind the times.

On the issue of the McDonald’s, as quoted in today’s paper:

“I really don’t know what I could have done differently,” Florida said. “I attend to the ward as if it were my own child.”

Really? Now what could she have done differently? Well, she could have started with telling Pyramid & McDonald’s that drive-thrus are against the redevelopment plan for South Grand from Utah down to Meremec and held firm that any such facilities would need to be limited to physical locations that have already had them. In other words, the bulk of the area has never had drive-thru restaurants and that should be enforced. She didn’t do that.

Ald. Florida will correctly argue this is a “private land swap” and they could do the deal without her. While it is true they could exchange real estate the problem with her logic in this case is the variance needed for the drive-thru. At the hearing in February Ald. Florida acted pretty much as the project’s spokesperson in full support of the variance over the objections of many residents that will be directly impacted. So, once again Ald. Florida had another chance to do something different — oppose the variance request rather than enthusiastically support it.

If she attends to the ward like her own child then it is clear she’ll sell out all the neighbor kids to make her own kid happy in the short term. She is even quoted as saying, “”Patterson went after my children,” which is pretty humorous considering they were the ones that came after me on my site (read post).

Ald. Florida has simply dug in her heals on this one, not wanting to consider the many alternative solutions offered by myself and others (see alternates). When Ald. Craig Schmid, who represents the bulk of the residents that will be affected by the relocation spoke against it, she voted against another bill that she was co-sponsoring with Schmid. Voting against legislation you co-sponsor over a disagreement on another issue is simply petty. Is this how we want our elected officials conducting business on our behalf?

The flap could ultimately cost Florida her job, as opponents galvanized by the McDonald’s debate move forward with a push to remove her from office.

This may well happen. Ald. Florida wants to blame me but she really has only herself to blame. I didn’t tell Gravois Park residents the McDonald’s would not be located on the former Sears site all the while planning for just that. I didn’t conceal drawings for the site plan at a Dutchtown meeting two days prior to the public hearing. I didn’t speak at public hearings over the wishes of the residents. I didn’t sponsor legislation to effectively spot zone the parcel to remove the no drive-thru clause from the redevelopment plan nor did I think it was OK to place a drive-thru on land acquired using federal tax dollars. I didn’t take the maximum contributions allowed from the officers of developer Pyramid Companies. Ald. Florida’s actions on the McDonald’s and other issues over the last five years have gotten her exactly where she is today, in the midst of a recall campaign. It is unfortunate that citizens have been forced to take such drastic measures to have a sense of checks and balances.

You see, in our municipal government we don’t have checks and balances. The other aldermen simply “defer” to the wishes of a singular aldermen when it comes to development issues. The will of one person often rules. Ald. Florida is attempting to say this issue is out of her hands. Interesting viewpoint since she has lobbied hard to get the necessary variance for the drive-thru and most likely will do so again on June 21, 2006 when the Board of Adjustment meets again on this issue (1:30pm, room 208 City Hall). I seriously doubt she’ll walk into that hearing and say she is withdrawing her support given all the information that has surfaced.

The McDonald’s is among several local stores operated by Jim Proctor, who says the move is necessary to build a new restaurant with an updated design.

I just love how these folks try to twist the truth around. Moving the franchise is not necessary to build a new restaurant. They’ve got a site. It may need to be re-graded and perhaps have a retaining wall added to achieve what they want. But to say they must move or close is false and is simply a tactic to get myself and others to capitulate. Since 1996 it has been recognized the area was blighted and it is the many auto-centric establishments that has made it so. We should not allow drive-thru restaurants to establish themselves anywhere they happen to buy land. Allowing them to locate anywhere is far to dangerous for the health of the street yet forcing them to leave is too harsh. The reasonable middle ground is to allow them to rebuild on their current sites.

Florida’s dilemma highlights the city’s shifting political landscape.

The landscape has changed. Myself and other citizens are tired of the status quo and some are not willing to wait until the next election cycle to take action. We are a city. We should look and act like a city. If the folks in office currently are not willing to work with those of us they are supposed to represent then we will simply replace each and every one. My role, as an urbanist, is to highlight the various issues and illustrate how politics is getting in the way of good urbanism. The tired tradition of aldermanic courtesy is not more important than the physical rebuilding and subsequent re-population of our city. Those in office & administrative jobs need to either adapt or get out of our way.

– Steve


Who Can It Be Knocking At My Door

One of the best things about having such a well-read website is all the feedback I get — both the pro & con. I love nothing better than a good debate on issues. Of course, some comments have little to do with the actual issue and simply seek to bash me. I’m pretty thick skinned so I can handle it. Such was the case with this comment a couple of weeks ago:

From “James” on 5/13/06:

I think it is fortunate for Steve Patterson that this is a Blog. It is human nature to give more credibility to items that are read than those heard by word of mouth. For this reason, Steve is able to present himself as a Journalist in order to gain credibility all the while using this sight for his own personal gain. It is really kind of clever because Steve can write absolutely anything he wants and people will read it and think because of the lay-out it is true. Talk about self-serving.. tell me Steve.. are you planning on moving to the 15th ward anytime soon? I heard forces outside of the Ward may render it alderman-less pretty soon.. maybe if you could run opposed the people would be idiotic enough to elect you.

A couple of hours later I got the following comment, sent from the same location [computer IP, unknown physical location] as “James” from above.

From “Megan” on 5/13/06:

I am a Journalism student at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I heard about your blog through various sources and I decided to check it out.
Recently, in one of my Journalism classes we discussed the dangers of blogging to the field of Convergence Journalism. The Convergence field of Journalism is a newly recognized (it is the first year this sequence has been offered at MIZZOU) sequence that focuses mostly on Online Publishing and Online Periodicals (CBSNews.com, etc). The problem of blogging is that in creating a blog and deeming it a title so decidedly journalistically inclined as the “Urban Review” you are lending a false credibility to yourself and, in essence, misleading those who may misinterpret your articles as truth instead of simply your opinion. I am sure that you think that you are very unbiased but the truth is that as a Journalism student I am horrified at what blogs like yours will mean for the future of Convergence Journalism. I can see that you have been praised by several in my future chosen field, but I am simply horrified and insulted by your irresponsible use of a blog for your own ulterior motives.

The above two comments were among a total of 70 on this post from May 10th. Yesterday I get another comment from the same location [cryptic IP, unknown physical location] answering another commenter’s question from a different post about what Metamora has to do with Jennifer Florida.

From Ian on 5/31/06:

Michael Allen

The comment about Metamora is a reference to where she was raised. She was born in Peoria Illinois and was on the road with her father and mother until middle school, when her parents settled down. She lived there until she graduated from college. Metamora is located about twenty five miles South East of Peoria, it has a population of roughly three thousand, however, due largely to many residents of Peoria leaving the city, Metamora’s population has been steadily growing.

So Ian is posting from the same location as James & Megan. Interesting. And who is this Ian with email address ief919@truman.edu? Well, I believe that would be one of Jennifer Florida’s children, Ian Florida.

Today Ian posted another comment, this time on the post about the ACC;

Doug Duckworth

Your assertion that citizens are moving out of the area because of the “botched” redevelopment of the Sear’s site is absurd. People have been leaving this city for many years, just look at the population statistics and crime rate and you’ll see for yourself why. The city’s crime rate has risen from roughly 38,000 in 2000 to
over 45,000 according to the most recent estimate. While at the same time the population has dropped from 396,685 in 1990 to 348K in 2000 and is now hovering just under 340K. It would be much more rational to draw a correlation and subsequantly attempt to prove a causation between crime and people fleeing the city than your supposition that its all Florida and McDonalds.

So this leaves me wondering, who are “James” and “Megan?” Also, does Ian Florida share his mother’s view that a new McDonald’s will help reduce crime?

The soap opera that is the McDonald’s on Grand continues….

[UPDATE 6/2/06 @ 4am – I added a bit of clarification to the above shown in brackets. I have no clue as to the physical location of the single IP address where these came from, nor do I really care. Nor do I know about 99% of the visitors/commenters to the site. I have not done any research on her kids, an there are many, and only know Ian is her son because she mentioned him at the SSNB ribbon cutting on Wednesday. For all of you that want to think I’ve been doing major digging get over it already — I simply observed four comments came from the same computer location of an unknown physical location. Without her mentioning her son at a public event I would not have been able to know that was who posted. ]

[UPDATE 6/2/06 @ 5:30am – please see my next post on privacy policy.

– Steve


Arch City Chronicle Misses Mark on McDonald’s & Recall

Most of you are probably familiar with the Arch City Chronicle — both the on again/off again print edition as well as the online blog. While the McDonald’s issue has been going on for several months now the print edition of the ACC has remained quiet on the issue until this past edition. Let’s take a look at their coverage from “The Inside Dirt” section:

The 15th ward recall might usurp the 4th district as the most fascinating political play this year. Jennifer Florida, who supported the stadium deal, fought charter reform, and made cozy in Slay’s camp; was unopposed last year for reelection. Now she’s the subject of a recall because a McDonald’s wants to move across the street?

Oh I get it, a clever way of saying the McDonald’s isn’t such a big deal relative to all her other wrong-doings. Perhaps. But this shows a complete lack of understanding about what motivates individuals: proximity to their home. Did the stadium deal or charter reform threaten resident’s homes with trash and noise from an adjacent drive-thru? No.

And it is not as simple as Editor Drebes (and Ald. Florida) make it out to be — just moving across the street. This shows Drebes has formed an opinion without looking into the issue of the financing behind the site (Federal funds used to acquire & raze old Sears) as well as the quality of life issues that would come from having a drive-thru on your side of a major street rather than the other. It should be noted the Drebes family lives just a block off Grand South Grand with all the various restaurants and shops and a decidedly different feel than the area in question. Location, location, location.

What’s surprising isn’t that it’s a bloody McDonald’s that’s moving the electorate. What’s funny is that the “recallers” apparently haven’t thought much about the future. First, it’s unlikely they’ll get the signatures. In order to so so, they’ll have to improve on their timid approach we witnessed in the park last weekend.

Oh, the discredit approach. Good one, Dave. Let’s observe a fraction of the first two hours of the recall effort and draw conclusions about the outcome of something which arguably takes a couple of months at best. I saw the folks collecting signatures in the park doing really well approaching people — perhaps too well. They were soon asked by Park Rangers to move toward the traffic circle where efforts proved more challenging.

Second, if they get the sigs, Florida has an open and thriving ward organization. Something progressives applaud. It has members. That is to say, she has a base to beat back a recall (Not to mention her $21,000 war-chest.)

Part of the ACC mission is to be, “challenging to the status quo.” Uh, is that going to start anytime soon? Sounds more like trumpeting the status quo to me. First we have the scare mongering technique to squash any potential rebellion by saying an incumbent has a whole ward organization and second a big pile of cash. What the ACC is really saying is this is St. Louis where ward politics reign supreme and money talks so even though we talk about challenging the status quo we really don’t mean it.

If blogger Steve Patterson couldn’t out-door-knock Kirner in his aldermanic race, it’s unlikely he can out-work the spunky Florida.

This sentence seems added later, just as a quick jab at me. It doesn’t really relate to the rest of the piece. Funny, a year ago Dave Drebes said it was the work of Lou Hamilton and the $14K+ that Kirner paid him that was why I was defeated in my race. Still, I managed to get more votes in the two precincts on my side of Grand with only two months from the date I entered the race to election day.

Florida is trying to paint me as the person behind the recall and the ACC doesn’t seem willing to examine that assumption. The truth is I don’t have the time to recall every alderman that makes bad development decisions — can you imagine the coordination required to run 28 recalls? Clearly I am a supporter of the recall and I am in communications with those that are but I have no intention of going door-to-door collecting signatures. It is their baby which may or may not succeed. My focus remains on the planning issues behind the McDonald’s issue on Grand.

Third, suppose they win a recall, the Democratic nominee would be chosen by the committeepersons — hardly the people that the recallers would consider a positive improvement from Florida. Greg Thomas is going to vote in favor of a civilian review board? “Not bloody likely.”

In other words, the alderperson whom you disagree with on moving a McDonald’s across the street will be better on 90% of your issues than the one that you get when you recall her.

Wow, more of that challenging to the status quo writing! The 15th ward has two committees. Florida’s committee though “thriving” apparently failed to have any candidates for committeeman or committeewoman. As such, the old guard committee would determine the Democratic nominee. The ACC is presuming committeeman Greg Thomas would nominate himself (certainly a possibility). I just adore the argument that we are better off with what we have because any replacement would be worse. Was that a jab at William Waterhouse in the 24th, the former committeeman that replaced recalled Tom Bauer?

The problem here is the ACC is promoting the idea that citizens should not be engaged in the process, that an incumbent with money cannot be beat so why even bother. This is not progressive thinking. This is what the status quo wants people to believe so they can go about their business and stay in office for 20+ years with seldom being challenged.

I’ve been disappointed the ACC hasn’t taken a closer look at the various issues of planning, zoning, aldermanic courtesy, funding sources, redevelopment plans and such all at work in this complex issue. You’d certainly think a paper with a mission to challenge the status quo would do so. But maybe not.

Ald. Florida is a regular advertiser in a paper that has struggled to stay afloat. Last year it got new investors but we don’t really know who they are. We do know advertisers include status quo PR folks Richard Callow & Lou Hamilton. Then we have Pyramid Construction, the developer behind all this. Not only are they big advertisers in the ACC they are also their landlord. Yes, the ACC leases office space from Pyramid.

The ACC is not about challenging the status quo but simply another voice for the status quo (besides the St. Louis Business Journal that Dave Drebes also writes for).

UPDATE 5/31/06 @ 5pm – At the suggestion of Thomas Crone, Dave Drebes and I are meeting tomorrow morning to “hash out” our perspectives in a civil face-to-face meeting.

– Steve


Ald. Florida & Co Submit Revised Site Pan for McDonald’s

As expected, the beleaguered team of McDonald’s, Pyramid Companies and unofficial spokeswoman Ald. Jennifer Florida submitted a revised site plan for the controversial McDonald’s proposed for the old Sears location at 3708 S. Grand. Last month when Ald. Florida told the Board of Adjustment they’d return with a design following Toronto’s excellent urban design guidelines for drive-thrus I was quite skeptical. Based on the new plan, I was right.

They’ve made a few simple changes — mostly good but still a long way from even approaching anything like what is suggested by Toronto’s standards. First, they have reduced the amount of extra paving which permits a planter area along the Southern property line. Similarly, they’ve created a 20ft+ landscape buffer at the alley with plantings and a 6ft high solid wood fence. Curb cuts on Grand have been reduced from 30ft wide each to 26ft wide. The main thing they’ve done is reduce the drive between the building and public sidewalk — this allowed them to move the building closer to Grand. Again, a good baby step but far from urban.

While the building is nearly abutted to Grand it is set back from Winnebego. To be truly an urban form it should conform to the corner. Three curb cuts is one too many. Lighting is from four poles and may potentially create excess light outside the property boundaries. I’d rather see more smaller lights so as to illuminate the parking area but not all the neighbors. All of the neighbor’s valid concerns about noise, pollution, trash and traffic remain unchanged.

If McDonald’s wishes to continue operating in this area they simply need to rebuild on their current location and not inflict their ill on a new set of adjacent homeowners.

– Steve