Does West Street Need a Taco Bell?

In July of 2014 The Capital published an article about a possible land swap between the City and a property owner in exchange for some land to reconfigure the Chinquapin/West/Admiral intersections. One aspect of that was the possible addition of a Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant at the site of the old Whiskey. I wrote about that in an Op Ed in the Capital. I’m not sure what has transpired with respect to the intersection other than I know SHA is looking at some options, but there is movement on the Taco Bell front.

Fast food restaurants in the City of Annapolis require a special exception to the zoning code and the owner has submitted an application to the Board Of Appeals which will hold a public hearing tonight (6/2/2015):

SE2015-001 – Special Exception application by Star Properties, LLC, property owner, and R & R Ventures East, Inc., business owner, to develop a fast food restaurant and an associated drive-thru facility, on property located at 1803 West Street

Below is my public testimony submitted for this hearing:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on SE2015-001.

I believe the request for special exception SE2015-001 should not be approved. My objection is not the product the business is selling, but the form of the building from which the product is sold. Fundamentally, a fast food restaurant and an associated drive-thru facility is not appropriate for this location along West Street because of the form of the proposed building – an automobile oriented drive-thru typical of suburban strip mall development – is not consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and as analyzed below, there is a very large opportunity cost to the City with this building form.

Drive-thru Restaurant is Inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan

In chapter 3 of the Annapolis Comprehensive Plan on Land Use and Economic Development, there is a set of cascading principles, objectives and opportunity areas that is directly applicable to this special exception request.

Principle 2. Infill development can occur, and it should occur in a manner that respects the size, scale, and use of existing and historic development patterns … Successful infill

maintains and/or restores spatial continuity to streetscapes; strengthens neighborhoods and commercial districts … introduces compatible uses that complement community attributes and needs.

Outer West Street is designated as an Opportunity Area for redevelopment:

This Plan recommends a transformation of the area, from an automobile oriented suburban commercial pattern to an urban character focused on residential development and commercial uses.

Specifically:

Buildings should front directly onto West Street with little or no front yard setbacks and little interruption of facades. And, It is recommended that the street transition to an urban boulevard in character with widened sidewalks, enhanced pedestrian and bicycle crossings, street trees, transit features, and street lights.

The typical drive-thru restaurant with a building set back far from the street surrounded by parking and other auto infrastructure is counter the these statements from the most general principle to the most specific opportunity area recommendation.

This automobile oriented development is decidedly not friendly to anyone outside of a car. The typical design of a drive-thru restaurant such as that proposed requires multiple curb cuts across pedestrian ways such as the sidewalk along West Street. Curb cuts can be dangerous to pedestrians as drivers fumble with purchased food as they drive out of the lot. Patrons wishing to visit such an establishment without cars must walk through surrounding parking from the sidewalk and most often cross drive-thru lanes leading to the establishment doors. By design this template is intended for areas where all people are in automobiles; for pedestrians, at best it is unpleasant or at worst dangerous.

A vibrant street life similar to what exists on inner West Street is created when people can walk and ride bikes along a streetscape that is interesting at a human scale. If we want to extend this to outer West Street as indicated above in the Comprehensive Plan, we must make choices that are people oriented. There are already examples of this along this part of West Street such as the mixed-use development at 1901 West, the new commercial development at 1730 West, and significant public investment in pedestrian infrastructure (sidewalks, signals and crosswalks). We need more development like this and an automobile oriented drive-thru restaurant is decidedly not consistent with these recent private and public investments.

Fiscal Productivity of a Drive-thru Restaurant

Beyond the aesthetic and functional components related to the Comprehensive Plan, there is a fiscal component associated with the proposed development plan. An automobile oriented development pattern represents a lost opportunity for the City. Property tax revenue is the single largest source of revenue for the City and it is in the taxpayer’s interest to receive the best return on property tax investment by promoting development that maximizes the use of City infrastructure.

It illustrative to compare the return on investment for a given frontage by comparing tax revenue from two diametrically opposed building forms along West Street: a traditional urban commercial form on inner West Street as encouraged in the Comprehensive Plan with a low density automobile oriented form as is the existing condition on much of outer West Street. A typical Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant occupies approximately 30,000 sq ft. (for example, 3091 Solomon’s Island Rd, Edgewater). For the purposes of this comparison the inner West model is Rams Head Tavern and Theater and the outer West model is McDonalds, which is the same type of automobile oriented design as the proposed Taco Bell. Both are relatively similar uses (consumer-based food) and share about the same frontage along West Street, although the proposed Taco Bell is approximately twice the lot size. Using the existing property tax rate of 0.640 per $100 of assessed value, we compare the value to the city of the two diametrically opposed development patterns:

Establishment Land Area(sq ft) Assessed Value ($) Tax Revenue($) Revenue/Area($/sq ft)
McDonalds 25, 264 1,157,900 7,411 0.29
Rams Head (2 plots) 16, 192 4,661,800 29,836 1.84

(source: MD Real Property Database)

From a fiscal standpoint, the urban commercial form is significantly more productive per square foot than an automobile oriented drive-thru restaurant by more than six times. A building form that maximizes the available land – parking lots and drive-thru lanes do not “improve” the assessed value much compared to a building – also maximizes the return on investment for a given amount of the City infrastructure (water, sewer, streets). For a City that is continuously facing budget challenges, why would we want to encourage development that minimizes return on investment?

Conclusion

The most important aspect of development along the West Street Corridor/Opportunity Area, is the form of the buildings, not the businesses occupying the buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with national chains or prepared foods per se in this area, as long as the form of the building maximizes financial productivity and in consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Furthermore, businesses come and go in response to changes in consumer tastes and market demand, and a building that is not purpose built as a drive-thru restaurant is much more likely to be easily reused as the occupying businesses change. This helps make the area much more resilient to future change.

As the proposed form of the building is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan and represents lower fiscal productivity for the City, the special exception should not be granted.

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