By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger
A suburban-style Chick-fil-A on Tulane and South Carrollton avenues won the approval of the City Planning Commission on Tuesday (Aug. 24). The commissioners agreed to recommend stripping away provisos designed to make the fast-food drive-thru compatible with the city’s development goals for the corridor.
The staff planners had outlined design changes that included positioning the building and walk-up window closer to the street, with the outdoor dining area in front and parking in the rear. They also wanted to reduce the number of parking spaces, driveways and curb cuts.
Like NOLA Chick, the locally owned restaurant now operating in the former Burger King at the site, the Chick-fil-A will not have indoor dining. It is subject to the CPC requirements because it is redeveloping the site.
“These changes will bring the development more in line with the increasingly urban character of Tulane Avenue, cause it to meet the design requirements of the Master Plan and zoning ordinance, and will set a standard for high-quality design elsewhere in the corridor and throughout the city,” said planner Haley Delery as she introduced the conditional use proposal, noting that the corner is a high-profile entry point for the city.
The changes, however, would interfere with the operation’s efficiency and inhibit traffic circulation on the site, said Michael Sherman of Sherman Strategies, representing the Atlanta-based company at the hearing.
“The site design is so particular here to make sure we can accommodate the vehicles in the double stacking lanes,” Sherman said. “So while we very much appreciate the staff’s commitment to progress on the Tulane Avenue corridor, what the near neighbors, the adjacent neighbors and the stakeholders have told us is, ‘We want this site to function well.’ And to do that, we have to properly stack cars on the site and have them enter and exit.”
Sherman also introduced the owner and operator of the franchise: Ben McLeish. McLeish also owns the Chick-fil-A franchise in Oakwood Mall but is better known for his work in the nonprofit sector as what he describes on his LinkedIn page as a “serial social entrepreneur.”
The loyalty McLeish has built in his community was evident in the public comments. Some commenters were directly connected to Chick-fil-A and the development, but most seemed to have a connection to McLeish.
All of the 20 or so people who submitted comments support the development, and nearly all specifically mentioned building placement and traffic flow.
For example, Oscar Brown of the Desire area, where McLeish worked for the Desire Street Ministries in the 2000s, praised the franchise owner and said: “I am asking the commission to please make sure the building is allowed to be placed in such a way that cars can get in and out quickly.”
No one opposed the application. The Mid-City neighborhood was represented by one resident: Emily Brodt, who lives on Banks Street. “I’m hoping that the CPC makes sure the restaurant is built to allow for the best traffic flow in and out of the location,” Brodt said, adding that she looks forward to getting Chick-n-Minis for breakfast.
A handful of supporters said they worked nearby, including two who gave the address of IV Waste, a company owned by Sidney Torres IV, who also owns the Chick-fil-A property. “Sidney is striving to make the area free from the obvious imperfections, and is doing a great job,” said Lisa Schehr, one of those employees.
Two supporters — Chuck Morse, the executive director of Thrive New Orleans, and Clark Heebe of 4 Pins Standing LLC, which owns the strip mall catty-corner from the Chick-fil-A site — discussed the project’s economic development potential.
“This is exactly the type of development that will strengthen the neighborhood, create jobs and generate tremendous sales tax dollars,” Heebe stated. “Please do not let bureaucracy stand in the way of this property’s revitalization.”
Heebe, a Mandeville resident, also noted that the corner is one of the city’s busiest traffic corridors and asked the CPC to grant Chick-fil-A its requests. “This is not Magazine or Oak Street, with a lot of pedestrians walking by,” he said.
After the long string of pleas to release the franchise from CPC demands, Commissioner Robert Steeg moved to approve the application with all the provisos intact, as recommended by the staff planners. The motion died for lack of a second.
Commissioner Katie Witry spoke in favor granting the franchise the waivers and lifting the provisos, although, as a vegan, she would not be a frequent customer. She said she recently visited a Chick-fil-A in an urban setting and was impressed by the efficiency amid three lanes of cars and plenty of pedestrian traffic.
“As just a mother in the car, I got nervous about all these people walking around and actually taking orders and delivering the food,” she said. “But there was a system to this.” She said she trusts that the layout will be well thought-out and wanted to grant Chick-fil-A the space that it needs.
The commission recommended approving the company’s application without restrictions on building placement, curb cuts and driveways and with 19 parking spaces allowed. Steeg cast the only no vote.
The application next goes to the City Council for a hearing and a final vote.
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.