Lakewood doesn’t have any of its most hotly debated issues on the ballot this year. There’s no opportunity to vote on whether McDonalds will demolish the old Detroit Theater and bring its drive-thru traffic to Woodward. There’s no ballot issue to decide when the school system will finally finish its reconstruction project. There’s no school levy on the ballot. Even Mayor Mike Summers is running unopposed.
But one defining bit of legislation does have a representative on the ballot: Councilman David Anderson is running to keep the post he was appointed to early this year. Anderson has introduced a bit of legislation that touches at a debate that could define the way our commercial corridors evolve.
The legislation would regulate drive-thru windows by limiting the conditions under which businesses could build and operate them. Anderson asked the Planning Commission to study existing drive thrus and create rules to help the city protect its residents from the noise, traffic, and smell that would go with adding more.
It’s too late for the legislation to apply to McDonalds’ proposal, but it would apply to the rumored intentions of the Taco Bell franchise across from the Library to build a new building across from the YMCA—on a site just two blocks west of the proposed McDonalds, immediately across the street from a Dairy Queen, immediately adjacent to a drive-thru oil change shop and a drive-thru car wash.
Drive-thrus are great for highway exits. They are not great for a very densely populated city striving to market its walkability, or the character of its neighborhoods. According to the Planning Department’s study, that would be the densest concentration of drive thru businesses in the city.
That also happens to be the corner of my street. For that reason alone, I am grateful for the legislation, and for the willingness of Councilman Anderson to take it up. By the time anyone reads this, Mr. Anderson will almost certainly have won his race. But the race to keep Lakewood’s appeal to homeowners–and balance their interests against the businesses willing to invest here–is not going to be over any time soon. And that’s a much bigger battle than my little corner of the city.
Election Day is about Choice. If the city can keep its appeal to people who like walking neighborhoods with local character, it will continue to be a place where people choose to live. If the city fails, those people will exercise their choice by leaving.
I have lived this fight for as long as my family has owned our house. In the dozen years we’ve lived just a few houses north of Dairy Queen, my family has seen a steady stream of commercial proposals that would significantly damage the quality of life in the neighborhood so that one business or another could have its way.
Its not that my neighbors and I don’t like business. When Hollywood Video built on the site of the former sticky bun purveyor known as Miller’s, no one complained. When Hollywood Video was replaced by the parts retailer Auto Zone, no one complained. There are plenty of other examples.
But when Denny’s restaurant proposed building a restaurant and operating it 24-7 to cater to the neighborhood’s thriving bar scene, people got worked up.
When the owner of an entire Detroit Avenue block sought to demolish three houses, replace them with a parking lot for the same collection of bars, and have the city pay for it, we got worked up again.
When the same owner sought to demolish the Civil War-era Hall House, we tried to preserve that piece of Lakewood’s history. We lost that one, without fanfare, on the day after Christmas, less than a week before Tom George left office.
When a social service agency illegally set up commercial counseling services for 36 publicly subsidized clients transitioning out of homelessness at a poorly maintained—and residentially zoned–apartment building, we went to battle yet again.
For a city like Lakewood—clamoring for tax dollars, struggling to maintain property values—these battles are never simple, clear-cut affairs. Consider the rumored Taco Bell.
The swatch of land in question sits beneath a long-troublesome building across from the Dairy Queen. I say ‘long-troublesome’ because for years, its former landlord neglected significant structural damage. Look along the property’s edge, and you can see the walls buckling dangerously outward. Chunks of concrete have fallen from the building’s window sills, lentils, and mullions. Some chunks as big as an adult’s thigh. They fall crashing to the sidewalk below. Fortunately no one has been hurt.
Finally, last spring, the building sold. And right about that time, the rumors began to circulate. The new owner let his tenants know that he was talking with Taco Bell, courting the company to move from its current location across from the library. The tenants—a chiropractor, a hair salon, and a successful guitar studio—had all been steady, for years. But the rumors of Taco Bell and impending demolition frightened them all off. Now the building sits vacant, bringing zero revenue. It still has all its structural issues. Something’s gotta give.
I’ve lived in the neighborhood for a dozen years, and two consecutive landlords have failed to do anything about that building. It’s a property that defines “demolition by neglect.” Now, odds are, the cost of repairs would outweigh the profitability of the place. The building seems doomed to demolition. And if the right proposal came along—like the YMCA’s one-time interest in a day-care facility there—I believe my neighborhood would be enthusiastically supportive.
The steady stream of new businesses targeting this neighborhood—from decent restaurants to the video store to the auto parts store –show that this is a city that can wait for the right proposal. We can afford to hold businesses to standards of operation that keep the surrounding neighborhoods palatable for the neighbors. We don’t have to jump at the first opportunity, if it would do more harm than good.
And since we can’t count on owners to care what happens to their property after they sell it, we need regulations that will ensure that businesses play nicely. I’m glad to have a councilman that will take this on.