Friday, June 27, 2008

Mike Ivey: Should Madison ban the drive-through?

First it was a proposed ban on plastic bags.

Now, a member of the influential Madison Plan Commission wants to ban the restaurant drive-through -- or at least restrict the ubiquitous symbol of America's auto-centric lifestyle.

"Given the concern about all the carbon going into the atmosphere, I'm not sure we should be building more places for people to sit idling in their cars," says Eric Sundquist, who was appointed to the citizen panel by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz this spring.

A former newspaper reporter in Atlanta now working as a researcher at the UW-Madison's Center on Wisconsin Strategy, Sundquist notes that several cities in Canada have recently moved to ban the drive-through coffee shop or stand-alone fast food restaurant (

"Bans haven't gotten as far in the U.S., although I know San Luis Obispo, Calif., has one," he says.

The issue came up last week during discussions over a conditional use permit for a new Starbucks coffee shop along a congested frontage road across from East Towne Mall.

The site at 4302 E. Washington Ave., in front of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, formerly housed the Frame Workshop retail store but has been vacant for more than a year. Property owner Tim Neitzel now wants to lease half of the 3,300 square foot retail building for a Starbucks that will also feature indoor and outdoor seating.

To facilitate the drive-through, developers are using a portion of the Crowne Plaza parking lot. Drivers picking up their morning coffee will have to make a circle route through the property to avoid potential traffic backups.

But nearby business owners are concerned about bringing more cars through the already congested intersection of East Washington and Continental Lane. The owner of a gas station on the frontage road said it's not uncommon for cars to wait through three traffic signal cycles to get across East Washington.

East Towne area Ald. Joe Clausius admitted the intersection is a problem and said with the Starbucks it "could get very backed up." Still, he said the corridor is badly in need of some redevelopment.

"I'm constantly getting peppered with questions from people about what is happening there and when will it happen," he says.

City officials have given their lukewarm support to the Starbucks, which is scheduled for a November opening. They say it could help create a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere near the Crowne Plaza.

"While many future customers will likely be driving automobiles, hotel guests and residents to the north represent a potential walking customer," says city planner Heather Stouder.

Sundquist is planning to bring the issue up before the city's Long Range Transportation Planning Commission on which he also serves.

"I know a ban might be difficult so a better approach might be to restrict them," he says, noting an ordinance in Davis, Calif., puts a number of restrictions on drive-throughs, including one relating to air pollution.

Middleton hotel

There are no signs of economic distress in Middleton, where developers continue to pursue major projects.

The latest is from Central Place Real Estate, which is proposing an ambitious redevelopment of the 3.9-acre former Prefinished Millwork site at the southwest corner of University Avenue and the Beltline.

A concept plan submitted to the city of Middleton earlier this month calls for demolishing the existing buildings and replacing them with a six-story, 125-room hotel built over 32,000 square feet of retail space. A three-story office building would anchor the other end of the project.

Parking would be provided in 130 underground spaces and 150 surface stalls.

Given the poor soil and water table conditions, developers have been talking with the city about TIF assistance, according to Central Place president Rob Zache.

Northgate update

The Madison-based Alexander Company is currently finalizing purchase of the venerable Northgate Shopping Center on North Sherman Avenue, home of Dorn Hardware and the Frugal Muse Bookstore, in addition to 19 other tenants.

Currently owned by the Northgate Partnership, the property is assessed at $4.1 million.

The purchase would be the first foray into Madison's north side for the Alexander Company, which has specialized in urban infill redevelopment projects.

Detailed plans for the center haven't been released but could include building and site improvements, Randall Alexander told the Northside News recently.

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