by Max Brantley
It smells like the deal is done for McDonald's to dump one of its busy fast-food restaurants smack into the maelstrom of an intersection — University and Markham — that doesn't need the traffic stress.
The Planning Commission, generally development friendly, failed, on a 5-5 vote, to approve a zoning to allow a McDonald's on a parcel where Bennigan's and previous restaurants long operated. The city planning staff opposes the idea. They are professional planners, in theory.
But, wait. McDonald's is appealing to the City Board and it comes bearing money. McDonald's is ready to pay a little front end Aramark-style money to cure a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place (or should have been paid by previous nearby developers). McDonald's is offering a financial tribute to put in a turn lane around the corner on Markham Street to ease the sometimes nightmarish traffic situation created by a Chick-fil-A and to also meet objections of inadequate access from Markham to the McDonald's, which will also have a University entrance. Chick-fil-A was allowed by the city over many objections — the parcel was too small, Markham was too narrow and a busy mall, Park Plaza, sat across the street.
In other words, McDonald's will pay now to cure the bad work of a Little Rock developer and a compliant city earlier while creating a new problem on University, recently widened at the cost of many millions. Why do I say it smells like the deal is done? Gene Fortson, who holds a Little Rock chamber of commerce seat on the board (as an at-large representative of the moneyed interests), said a better alternative for the parcel, a good restaurant, won't work there. He was quoted in the D-G as saying you'd have to charge $125 for a steak to make a high-end restaurant work. Funny, over 30 years of brew, booze and burgers, I don't think Bennigan's or any predecessor ever charged even $25 for a steak, macho nachos, potato skins or anything else.
Director Stacy Hurst, who represents the ward and who I quoted yesterday about her hopes that a higher-style mixed-use development will eventually take hold as promised at Park Avenue, immediately to the south of the proposed McDonald's site, seemed in the morning paper's account to be interested in the Markham street kickback offer by acknowledging the problem on Markham. I've asked her for further thoughts on the general notion of a McDonald's at that point in the midst of an neighborhood where hopes had existed for better than a row of fast-food joints. I hope she'll chime in (and that readers, who might disagree philosophically, might try a touch more civility with those such as Hurst who are willing to get into the forum, for attribution.)
UPDATE: Thanks to Director Hurst for responding:
I'm concerned about the potential for traffic problems. Although McDonald's claims that their restaurants don't generate a lot of new traffic, at the very least, there are a lot of cars pulling in and out. I think Markham can probably be addressed by their willingness to widen — which would also help the Chick-fil-A problem — but, University remains a concern for me. McDonald's has planned for two lanes of traffic at their drive through and the ability to stack 30 cars. Their traffic consultant's study indicates it will work.
It's a very difficult site for a number of reasons. The ingress and egress is difficult and there are unusual easements between the Bennigans property and the Baker building on the corner. There's been some interest over the past several years, but nothing has gotten this far. I'm as ready as anybody for redevelopment. So, I guess it's fair to say that I'm still weighing it all.
Here's the full record of the Planning Commission deliberations.