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For a few years North Park’s been San Diego’s most-talked about neighborhood. It’s basically ground zero for the city’s touted craft beer industry, makes national “hippest neighborhood” lists and functions as the proving ground for urbanist trends like parklets and bike corrals.
And for the last few years, North Park’s also been the battlefield for an ongoing fight over drive-thrus.
“It’s a classic case of a community re-imagining itself into a walkable, bikable community, and dealing with the legacy of its previous drive-thru, auto-oriented culture,” said Bruce Appleyard, a city planning professor at San Diego State University whose research focuses on bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets.
North Park has neighborhood-specific zoning that precludes drive-thrus from opening in certain areas and made it so getting a permit for any new one required a public hearing and community feedback. But those restrictions haven’t kept the community from fighting off unwanted projects.
Each of those fights has brought with it its own set of circumstances, mostly dealing with whether the city’s Development Services Department followed proper protocol.
But why, specifically, have residents and the local planning group drawn a line in the sand against drive-thrus, and why hasn’t that line effectively prevented new ones from opening?
In short: They’re a nuisance that no longer fit the new, hipper North Park, and the zoning restrictions are too vague.
Most recently, the issue came up late last month when a sign on University Avenue declared a new Arby’s restaurant was destined for the site.
The community mobilized against the project quickly, and the issue might be working itself out: The sign’s been taken down and city staffers say nothing’s been approved.
Earlier in the year, though, the Jack in the Box at Upas and 30th streets secured the long-term future of its drive-thru when Development Services approved a permit to remodel the structure, rather than requiring a harder-to-secure permit to rebuild. A lawsuit challenging the city’s decision is currently pending.
And in a 2007 fight over the KFC at University Avenue and Utah Street, owners likewise tore down the existing structure and rebuilt from scratch without going through a review process. The end result was a commercial structure that doesn’t hug the sidewalk, as local zoning requires, and is instead set back, with a parking lot between the building and pedestrians.
Members of North Park’s volunteer planning group, including board chair Vicki Granowitz, are also upset about a nearly completed drive-thru at 32nd Street and North Park Way.
Those confrontations took place despite the existence of the Mid-City Communities Planned District Ordinance, which added zoning requirements in the North Park area that restricted drive-thrus from certain areas, and forced those proposed in allowable locations to get community feedback first, rather than following a basic review by a Development Services staffer.
The neighborhood-specific zoning hasn’t been effective, Granowitz said, because despite its intentions, it remains vague and inconclusive, leaving city employees to make subjective interpretations.
“The zoning alone isn’t enough to make it a not-gonna-happen kinda thing,” she said. “It gives wiggle room. There are so many vague areas where you can manipulate it. It just isn’t clear enough.”
What’s needed, she said, is language in North Park’s community plan that specifically says residents do not want drive-thrus in particular areas.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t believe there are locations where they’re appropriate,” she said. “We’re not opposed to all of them. They just have to make sense.”
The community is in the midst of the lengthy process of updating its plan, and hopes to address the issues that have cropped up with the neighborhood-specific zoning. It wants to outline in the new plan that the community doesn’t want drive-thrus in specific areas.
Granowitz said the group is working with business groups and community members to determine where to draw the lines.
“I think it’s important to note that North Park is not trying to ban drive-thrus,” said Kathleen Ferrier, a North Park resident and policy manager for WalkSanDiego who supports the effort to rid the University corridor of the car-first restaurants to create more pedestrian-friendly areas.
But, she said, North Park needs to be aware of the different income groups that live there.
“We can’t get rid of lower-cost food,” she said. “It’s not socially equitable. Now, fast food is not the perfect example, because we need healthy food too, but it’s important that we can’t speak to just one economic group.”
The opposition to drive-thrus comes down to a few concerns for those who live closest to the restaurants, as well as overall issues with the ways auto-centric establishments conflict with North Park’s thriving urban sensibility.
The first set of issues has to do with how many of North Park’s commercial corridors are located right next to residential communities, without much area for transition.
“For the adjacent neighbors, it’s that they’re constantly being woken up by the microphone, constantly have to clean up, even though they live in a residential community,” Granowitz said.
But the larger, community-wide issue, she said, is the safety issues drive-thrus present as North Park becomes more of a place for people on two feet or two wheels.
“With the exponential increase in multi-modal transportation going on in North Park, we have so many dangerous situations there,” she said.
Appleyard said there are many academic studies confirming the correlation between additional drive-ways, whether for food-service windows or residential garages, and accidents between vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles.
“In general it just makes it a more hazardous area,” he said.
But that hazard is especially problematic if North Park’s going to continue to be a place where people walk from a make-your-own-succulent-display store to a craft beer bar to a farm-to-table-restaurant.
“The real question is: Do you want a place you drive through, or one you drive to?” said Appleyard. “That’s what North Park and all those neighborhoods want to be now. They’re becoming a destination in and of themselves. They’re evolving from an auto-oriented, drive-through culture to a drive-to culture that you walk around.”
Howard Blackson, an urban planner who’s on the board of the North Park Planning Committee, has argued there’s economic incentive to embracing that drive-to culture.
Urban, rather than suburban, land uses generate a higher return on investment, in terms of tax revenue, he said.
He pointed to last year’s sale of the Uptown District Shopping Center in Hillcrest for $81 million, the largest retail sale in San Diego County in 2012.
At the time, the real estate investor who negotiated the transaction said the price indicated demand for multi-tenant, urban properties, the opportunity for which is diminished when high-value sites along University Avenue are instead occupied by single-tenant stores surrounded by a parking lot, and a drive-thru.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified when the Mid-City Communities Planned District Ordinance was adopted.