Neighbors' appeal of McDonald's drive-thru earns site upgrades

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April 22, 2014 // UPDATED 11:10 pm - April 23, 2014
By: Ben Johnson
The McDonald's at 1100 University Ave. NE
Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson
Neighbors take to city hall to stop additional drive-thru lane, come away with 13-point agreement that will help to mitigate longstanding complaints

Beth Forkenbrock has lived next to the McDonald’s at 1100 University Ave NE for almost 40 years. She still remembers when the ubiquitous burger chain was first built on an empty lot at the corner of University and Broadway Street in 1975, and can recall all of its subsequent expansion: when McDonald’s first created a makeshift drive-thru when those became popular in the 1980s, when it bought land surrounding the store to make room for a bigger parking lot, and when the original store was demolished for a new building in 1994.

She and other residents that share the block with McDonald’s say that as the store grew, management became less responsive to persistent livability problems. Inconsistent fencing failed to stop noise from the drive-thru speakers from reaching their backyards, previously agreed upon hours of operation were frequently flouted, employees stopped picking up litter surrounding the store and the property’s lights were much too bright and not shut off at night.

So, when McDonald’s sent out a letter in February notifying neighbors of its plan to expand again – this time adding a second drive-thru lane as part of proposed summer renovations – the neighbors took action.

“We’ve been dealing with constant issues from McDonald’s for a very long time, so when they wanted to build a second drive-thru, we said ‘No, wait a minute. You’ve encroached on us enough, we don’t want any more of this,’” said Forkenbrock.

Five neighbors showed up to the Feb. 20 Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting to contest McDonald’s request for four variances that would allow the requisite signage needed for another drive-thru lane.

The Zoning Board sympathized with the neighbors, but Chair Sean Cahill had to repeatedly remind them that it was strictly a zoning hearing, and the livability issues they brought up had little relevance to that particular debate.

“We were in there flying by the seat of our pants,” said Robert Riskin, whose backyard butts up against the drive-thru lane. Eventually three of the four variance requests were granted, so all of the neighbors chipped in about $80 to fund an appeal to the City Council Zoning and Planning Committee.

Neighbor Tim Kennedy points out a section of fence near his home that does little to stop the noise from the drive-thru -- photo by Ben Johnson

A month later their appeal was heard, serving as the forgotten undercard to the marathon southwest Minneapolis teardown moratorium hearing at City Hall.

Although he does not sit on the Zoning and Planning Committee, Ward 3 City Council Member Jacob Frey was allowed to give a speech to committee members asking them to grant the appeal. He said that it was clear McDonald’s wasn’t following conditions set when it built the new store in 1994, so he saw no need for the city to grant another set of variances.

“Quite frankly, [for] a business that I do not think has added substantially to the community in general, I just don’t think another lane, plus additional signage beyond the already granted conditional use permit is necessary,” said Frey.

The committee agreed and the appeal was granted on a unanimous vote, leaving McDonald’s unable to proceed with its plans.

McDonald’s responds

Frey facilitated several meetings between the Sheridan Neighborhood Organization and McDonald’s representatives during the following weeks to help negotiate a deal to get the neighbors to drop the appeal.

Ray Croaston, McDonald’s Construction Manager for the Midwest Region, said he wasn’t fully aware of the neighbors’ complaints and added that it’s not uncommon for businesses built adjacent to residential areas to experience occasional friction.

“Whenever you mesh residents right up against commercial there’s always a challenge because you have different kinds of uses that are going on,” he said. Croaston said he sympathized with the neighbors as a former member of his neighborhood association board in south Minneapolis.

“McDonald’s is committed to being part of the neighborhood. Usually we have good rapport, and it was interesting because I was at the neighborhood meetings and there weren’t any complaints that have been filed that we were aware of,” he added.

A little more than two weeks after the appeal was granted, the neighbors and McDonald’s signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding detailing 13 improvements McDonald’s pledged to make if the neighbors dropped their appeal.

Now part of the renovation project will include upgrades to fencing, landscaping, walkways, and irrigation, and new LED lights and a new digital sound system should help tamp down the invasiveness of the additional drive-thru lane.

The southernmost section of the fence will also be made available to local artists for a potential mural, although the mural is subject to McDonald’s approval and the neighborhood will have to pay for it.

“The Memorandum of Agreement was put together to say ‘Hey this is really what we’re looking at doing, in good faith, this is the scope of the project,’ and that everyone understands that this is a win-win for everyone,” said Croaston, who declined to disclose the project’s cost.

According to Frey, the upgrades will cost McDonald’s about $1.2 million. Construction will probably take place sometime this summer or fall, and Croaston estimated that it will take six to 10 weeks.

Moving forward, the neighbors have pledged to stay vigilant in holding McDonald’s accountable to the agreed upon conditions.

“I still have to say I’m still very unhappy with the additional drive-thru,” said Forkenbrock. “But we got as much as we think we can get from them,” added Riskin. “If they don’t comply, we will raise holy hell and complain to the city, to the council members, to their Chicago corporate office, their lawyers, we’ve got all of their email addresses now. We will make noise,” he said.

Ben Johnson // 612-436-5088 // // @johnsonbend