The fast-food vendor that owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell is concocting a new recipe for San Diego's Golden Hill community. Tricon Global Restaurants Inc. proposes to rebuild its aging Kentucky Fried Chicken into a bigger, more attractive eatery featuring such amenities as public restrooms, outdoor dining, landscaping, and an expanded menu that would include Taco Bell fare.
Although the $1.2 million, Art Deco-style replacement may look appetizing on architectural renderings -- especially compared with the stale, decades-old, boxlike structure -- one ingredient is giving some Golden Hill residents indigestion. Adding a drive-through lane and window at 2496 Broadway would violate the neighborhood's planned-district ordinance, which governs commercial and multiresidential development and construction. Tricon, a multibillion-dollar corporation, is scheduled to seek an amendment to the ordinance today, Thursday, March 2, at a hearing of the San Diego Planning Commission.
"I don't want a drive-through four blocks from my home," said Bonnie Poppe. The community volunteer and property owner is among dozens of Golden Hill residents who fear that if an exception were made for Tricon, other fast-food chains would make similar requests. They predict the pressure to carve out more exceptions to Golden Hill's 1989 rules prohibiting drive-through facilities would increase now that the City of San Diego and the Padres are proceeding to build a new baseball stadium within two miles of Golden Hill.
"I feel sure this is connected to the ballpark. The KFC is only a few blocks from a freeway exit on the way downtown," said Poppe, who envisions sports fans driving through Golden Hill to avoid freeway congestion, picking up buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and tossing the trash into people's yards. "Golden Hill Park was the first part of Balboa Park that was developed back in the 1890s. We feel the entrance to the oldest part of Balboa Park shouldn't be lined with fast-food outlets."
The downtown ballpark didn't influence Tricon's plans for Golden Hill, company officials say, noting the idea of a drive-through dates back to 1989, the year the neighborhood first banned such facilities via an emergency ordinance from the San Diego City Council. Tricon resumed pushing for a drive-through in 1996. "This is the '90s," said W. David Martin, former market coach for 15 company-owned Kentucky Fried Chickens in San Diego County, including the Golden Hill site. A few weeks ago, Tricon transferred Martin to Memphis, Tennessee. "People don't like getting out of their cars. Drive-throughs are more convenient for disabled persons, the elderly, and mothers with children," Martin said. "It's not a matter of bringing more folks to the neighborhood. We want to better serve our existing customers."
In addition, drive-through service would increase the restaurant's sales by 20 percent, Martin estimated. The average annual sales of a Kentucky Fried Chicken total $817,000, but the Golden Hill location is below average, said David Luxton, a Tricon construction manager in Irvine. "The economic reality is to upgrade the site. KFC needs to increase income into this site," Martin said. "One way is adding Taco Bell, and another is adding a drive-through." Otherwise, Tricon is likely to abandon Golden Hill, Martin said, where it owns the 1968 building but rents the underlying land on a month-to-month lease.
Tricon's "my way or no way" stance is expected to make today's planning commission hearing a penultimate showdown for "the Colonel." If the commission were to uphold the rules prohibiting drive-throughs, Tricon would likely appeal, taking its request to the San Diego City Council later this year. If the commission were to allow a drive-through, neighborhood activists would protest that decision, which would require the city council to change Golden Hill's planned district ordinance. Staff members of San Diego's Planning and Development Review Department recommend denial of Tricon's amendment but approve the project without a drive-through.
"It's big business basically bullying a smaller community," said Cindy Ireland, chairperson of the Greater Golden Hill Community Planning Committee, the advisory group instrumental in prohibiting drive-through facilities in 1989. As co-chair of the Coalition Advocating Redevelopment Excellence, CARE, Ireland also opposes the inadequate planning of a taxpayer-subsidized baseball stadium downtown, a project that threatens to overwhelm Golden Hill with clogged traffic, parking shortages, trash, noise, and other pollution. A hearing on the coalition's lawsuit against the Padres and the city is scheduled for Monday, March 6.
While Ireland acknowledges the ballpark looms as a greater threat to Golden Hill than Tricon's proposal, she sees the adverse consequences of one project exacerbating the other. "We have concerns about providing fast-food conveniences in close proximity to downtown, in close proximity to the freeway, so that people can bounce off the freeway and grab something on their way through the community -- which doesn't really benefit the community, but it certainly benefits a particular business. It increases our traffic, the litter, and some of the concerns we already have with that ballpark project."
Construction of fast-food outlets, with or without drive-through windows, has pitted ordinary citizens against big chains throughout California.
Carlsbad, for example, outlawed drive-through restaurants in 1997. "People finally got fed up," Michael W. Grim, a city senior planner, said, referring to problems of traffic, parking, noisy squawk boxes, blaring lights, and garbage. In 1998, San Juan Capistrano imposed a moratorium on new fast-food establishments to protect the town's residential neighborhoods and historic charm. Burbank, Newport Beach, Sierra Madre, and South Pasadena are among towns that have taken similar action, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Carmel and Pacific Grove heavily restrict fast-food, too, said Toni Gaylord, executive director of Coronado Main Street, a National Trust for Historic Preservation program dedicated to maintaining the character of old downtown neighborhoods. Gaylord researched the issue to help Coronado draft its own fast-food rules in 1995 and modify them in 1997. Coronado prohibits drive-through restaurants and limits the number of what it calls "formula fast-food restaurants" to ten sites, but the regulations don't apply to military property. A proliferation of chains not only can strip a community of its personality, Gaylord said, but it also can inflate commercial real estate prices beyond the reach of small business owners.