Want A Traffic Jam With Those Wings?
by Allan Appel | Oct 10, 2012 1:47 pm
Why will the hungry driver cross the road? He might do it to get the chicken and biscuits without ever having to bestir himself from his vehicle— thanks to a zoning board decision that overruled a city staff report.
The decision came Tuesday night at a meeting at the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Feathers were flying as commissioners, staffers, and the owners of Popeye’s and their assembled experts debated a proposal to permit the Whalley Avenue fast-food joint to reconfigure its lot and put in a drive-thru.
The board voted 4-1 to approve a “special exception” to allow a drive-thru addition to the popular restaurant near the downtown confluence of Whalley, Goffe and Dixwell.
It did so even though a City Plan Department staff report advised against it.
Of specific concern to the staff is the u-shaped wrap-around drive path in the plan. It has cars entering on Goffe Street, accumulating in a queue of up to six vehicles, circling around the now halved Popeye’s lot, and exiting back onto Goffe.
Planners called this a danger to pedestrians walking on Goffe. They also envisioned a potential “criss-cross” vehicular peril at the entrance and egress curb cuts that are so close to each other.
Commissioner Victor Fasano also expressed concern about a a row of backed-up cars spilling onto Goffe, their drivers growing irritated and distracted, their bellies growling to get their birds, biscuits, and Louisiana-style shrimp.
“I was prepared to vote against this,” he declared after two hours of testimony from Solomon and his team of engineers and designers and lawyers.
But the presentation was so persuasive, he changed his mind, he said.
In the end, only commissioner Regina Winters voted against, citing noise concerns for nearby apartment and fraternity house dwellers.
Fasano said that more noise is likely to come from the nearby Yale fraternity house, one of the only residential buildings within 250 feet of the proposed drive-through. Relief from this restriction was, specifically, one of the reasons a “special exception” was being sought by Popeye’s.
The Popeye’s team put on a full-court press for approval during what turned out to be a two-hour hearing at Tuesday’s zoning board meeting. That batted away, for the most part, point by point the concerns, and emerged triumphant in the flap.
36 Cameras, Buried Loops
Commissioner Ben Trachten wanted to know how many cars could safely queue up to the menu board, the first station on entering the drive-thru loop at Goffe. The answer: two.
But most drive straight in the line past the menu board to the ordering kiosk, claimed designer Christopher Bell.
That’s what happens at the Popeye’s in Hamden, said Keith Solomon. He has owned both the Hamden and the New Haven Whalley Popeye’s franchises for decades, he said. He claimed he has grown so adept at drive-thru technology he has helped Popeye’s national with innovations. Loops buried in the pavement let his staff know how long a car is waiting. If the wait lasts too long, a staffer can go out and deliver the goods and get that car moving.
Solomon said he’s having a special meat-holding locker designed especially for the site to further cut down waiting time. He has sold all his other businesses and is concentrating on Popeye’s here and in Hamden, he said. Hamden works without a hitch. He doesn’t see why, even though this lot is uniquely small, a drive thru couldn’t work here, he said.
He mantra: Keep them moving, fast and safe.
“Eighty percent of our business is take-out” as is, said Solomon. Instead of people driving in, parking, and waiting as long as 20 minutes, they can slip through in three minutes or less.
Fasano came back to that traffic “criss-cross” at Goffe. Solomon’s attorney, Anthony Avallone, objected to the term.
Traffic engineer David Spear, working for Solomon’s crew, testified their studies show 95 percent of the time no more than four cars will occupy the queue, which has a maximum of six, without the seventh back-ending out onto the sidewalk at Goffe. On a given day, he said, 8,200 cars pass on Goffe.
If cars do stack up more than that, drivers have two waiting slots to pull into, Solomon said. He also promised to hire a traffic and security staffer to direct traffic at the busiest times.
BZA Chair Pat King remained skeptical. Solomon’s experts testified that they had tested decibel levels and concluded neighbors won’t hear anything.
Crime? No problem, Solomon claimed. Commissioners learned that police have responded to 200 calls at the Popeye’s address over two years. But Beaver Hills-Edgewood top cop Sgt. Max Joyner testified that those numbers don’t tell the story. Very few complaints actually involve Popeye’s, he said. The general location pops up as a reference in complaints.
“Although we have a high number of calls to that area, half don’t involve Popeye’s,” he testified. He praised the number of video cameras on the site, some added at Joyner’s request. Also at Joyner’s request, Solomon has added off-duty officers who on Fridays and Saturdays maintain order until the 3 a.m. closing time.
Dwight Alderman Frank Douglass offered the community’s “total support” in no small part because the current 50-plus full and part-time staff would grow.
Attorney Avallone presented a petition of 18 businesses along Whalley in support of Solomon, who is also a board member of the Whalley Avenue Special Services District.
The only opposition to the plan at the public hearing came from Courtyard Marriott Hotel. Attorney James Perito argued that hotel guests are residents too. As such, they are within the 250 feet from the proposed drive-thru. He said as many as half of the hotel’s 200 guests frequently complain about noise at Popeye’s. One hundred of the 200 rooms face Popeye’s. Aa drive-thru with people blaring radios while waiting would only add to the cacophony, he argued.
At that point, Solomon’s father, an attorney, arose. Where are they 100 people who complain? he asked Perito. Have they testified? As presented, this is not a credible objection, he argued.
The zoners’ vote for approval included a condition: that the staff’s five recommendations for the design be incorporated into the site plan, which now goes before the City Plan Commission fore approval. The suggestions involve monitoring, security, and a rule that Popeye’s employees park off site, on the United Illuminating property immediately to the west of the store.
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Just what downtown New Haven should be known for - more drive through restaurants. This is a very poor idea.
I’m surprised there was no mention of the City’s poor air quality and high rate of asthma as a concern for the idling cars in the drive-through.
posted by: streever on October 10, 2012 4:38pm
Did the BZA enter any facts into the record for this reversal? They can not ignore the reports from City Plan unless they specifically address each concern listed.
Anyone opposed to this plan could easily reverse the decision in a court if the BZA has not satisfied each of the concerns listed by City Staff.
It seems certain attorneys are always attached to controversial proposals passing, and always without the proper protocol followed.
Maybe it will cut down on the fights in the parking lot? We used to put up a guest of our office at that Marriott every few months, and she would get room service and watch fights break out. Said it was better than TV.
Serving fried chicken and biscuits isn’t bad enough. Let’s add some car exhaust.
The City Plan report is “advisory;” there is no obligation on the part of the Board to follow the report.
If you were present at the hearing you would have heard one very thorough presentation that refuted (in my mind) all of the issues in the City Plan Advisory Report. BTW, there was a memo in the package from City Plan that essentially stated that if the Board was inclined to grant the application it should address some issues. So I read that as maybe the recommendation of denial was not a wholly universal sentiment at City Plan.
Noise impact on the frat house next door and the few apartments within 250 feet were shown to be minimal. Pedestrian issues were addressed and dismissed. And no one offered any real evidence in opposition other than the hotel.
Whether you classify the hotel a “residential use” or not I would argue is immaterial. It is so far from the Goffe Street side of the Popeye’s lot that noise impact is likely minimal (and dont forget that Whalley Ave creates its own noise). Unless the Marriot appeals we will just have to wait and see what real impact the drive-thru has on Goffe. Personally, I like the idea that cars will not be able to cut through the lot to get from Goffe to Whalley. Its an added benefit of a plan that was presented properly and addressed 4 out of 5 board member’s concerns.
posted by: streever on October 10, 2012 11:05pm
That isn’t how I was taught by City Plan on the BZA.
The reasoning behind us needing to provide specific fact-finding is simple.
City Plan is a group of professionals with credentials and years of study, who have prepared an advisory report with a series of extensively researched and documented facts and opinions.
BZA hears public testimony, and IF the testimony contradicts the findings of City Plan, it is up to BZA to document how and where and why they do so.
That is not how the BZA actually operates, of course, because that would eliminate the ability of people to abuse and manipulate the system. It is just how it OUGHT to operate.
As much as my dog and I LOVE Popeye’s Chicken this plan for a drive through does not sound good at all on paper. But I would love to get my chicken and run with out getting out of my car in that neighborhood. I think I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I suppose this means the demise of the Popeye’s walk-up window, a great little cross-cultural meeting spot. It’s really not that much more difficult than a drive-thru window. Pull up, park, step up to the window and get food.
Does the BZA ever deny anything? Why have any zoning regulations at all?
Another drive through…I thought the ‘new’ New Haven was one intent on encouraging walking and bicycling. Do they have bike-up window?
posted by: streever on October 11, 2012 11:37am
Joe—they deny a LOT of things if the applicant is unpopular, trying to do something small to their personal home, or not using the right lawyer.
I do not doubt the news value of the configuration of Popeye’s parking lot, or of the many other BZA and City Plan issues covered by the Independent. The Register stopped being able to cover these hearings long ago and it’s wonderful the Independent has stepped in to fill the void. But is it really necessary to cover every issue on the BZA agenda while ignoring (for example) a proposed $50 million expansion of the GNHWPCA’s Eastshore treatment facility, which is to be paid for largely with public funds and which could have significant implications for air and water pollution? There have been two public meetings about the GNHWPCA expansion and not a word in the media. Call me crazy, but perhaps this is of greater public significance than Popeye’s parking lot?