Planning commission approves Duke Street Taco Bell


By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

The city planning commission approved a new Taco Bell restaurant on Duke Street last week, over the objections of neighbors who said it will have a negative impact on traffic and other factors.

Opponents focused on what they said would be increased congestion on North Gordon Street as a result of the eatery, which would have a drive-through as well as indoor and outdoor seating.

Nathan Randall, an urban planner in the city’s department of planning and zoning, said the new eatery at 4213 and 4141 Duke St. will operate indoor dining from 6 a.m. to midnight and outdoor dining from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. In addition, the restaurant will include a drive-through, in operation from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. during the week and 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. at the weekend.

Originally, Randall said, the drive-through was intended to be in operation 24 hours, but the applicant curtailed the hours after hearing concerns from the community. Randall added that the applicant will add more trash cans and revise the times at which it can receive deliveries, while the outdoor dining hours were curtailed from an original plan of 10 p.m.

But opponents who testified against the proposal said the eatery, which would contain 44 indoor seats and 12 outdoor seats as well as a 15-space parking lot, would cause tremendous negative impacts on traffic congestion and pedestrian safety.

Numerous members of the public pointed to North Gordon Street’s role as a residential street in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood, on which there are three small businesses. Under Taco Bell’s plan, drivers exiting the drive-through are able to turn left onto North Gordon Street and then follow it back to Duke Street. Neighbors said that plan would cause problems for drivers and non-drivers alike.

“We’re going to be living this nightmare,” said local resident Sarah McMahon. “We’re not going to feel safe walking our babies in strollers across the road, holding our children’s hands to go across the road. We’re going to be dodging cars like we’re playing Frogger. It’s not the right location for a drive-through.”

“By putting a business that’s core business model is to siphon off traffic off a major intersection and then dump it off onto North Gordon Street, you’re putting myself and my family in danger while threatening the safety of my own community,” said resident Andrew Eiler.

Commissioner Melissa McMahon asked city staff to explore whether customers could be encouraged not to exit onto North Gordon Street by removing a curb cut after the drive-through exit.

City development division chief Rob Kerns said the applicant’s signage can be altered to encourage drivers not to use North Gordon Street, although there is no way to plan for human nature.

Opponents also criticized what they felt were deficiencies in the traffic study for the project, carried out by consultants Wells & Associates. According to a report prepared by city staff on the project, the consultants found that the site would generate 50 percent fewer trips than its current use — an Enterprise rental car service.

Traffic was anticipated to grow by approximately 0.5 percent per year and not have any adverse impacts, but local resident Tim Cavanaugh said the study was, “counting cars at intersections. There was no quantitative look at what the nature of the street is.”

While those who testified emphasized that they primarily opposed the drive-through aspect of the Taco Bell proposal, in written testimony several people raised objections with the eatery itself. In an email to planning staff, resident Jennifer Johnson said the restaurant will attract “a clientele that we’d rather not have milling about.”

“Taco Bell does not bring in an upscale, respectable crowd,” she wrote. “With the proposed super late night drive-through, this would encourage constant late night riff raff. Once bars and clubs close, the drunk and high patrons get food on their way home. This is not the clientele, noise and disrespect we want in our backyard at all hours of the night. This transient clientele would also be the type to indiscriminately litter.”

Commission chairwoman Mary Lyman and commissioner David Brown noted that it is not for the planning commission to decide on the type of businesses applying, but on the merits of applications that are brought forward. Lyman added that had the drive-through option not been so central to Taco Bell’s application and operations, she would have wanted it removed.

Planning commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the project, 6-0. Commissioner Maria Wasowski was absent.
Under the terms of the plan, the eatery’s special use permit would be subject to review twice, after six months and one year of operations, to ensure all terms have been adhered to. City council is slated to vote on the proposal at its January 28 public hearing.