Mickey D’s new home

Chico Planning Commission approves fourth McDonald’s

An artist’s rendering of the proposed McDonald’s as presented in the Planning Commission’s agenda packet.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed McDonald’s as presented in the Planning Commission’s agenda packet.

Photo By city of chico

Anyone who lives near Chico’s Pleasant Valley High School knows what happens when school lets out for lunch: Hundreds of students flow in waves across East Avenue, often overwhelming the signal at Ceanothus Avenue, on their way to buy pizza slices and other fare in the Safeway shopping center.

A proposal to put a 4,387-square-foot McDonald’s restaurant with a drive-through on the empty 1-acre parcel immediately east of the Safeway parking lot has raised some questions, most having to do with student safety. Will a facility that generates more than half of its business from its drive-through draw more vehicular traffic, increasing the chances of car-pedestrian accidents? Will this popular fast-food outlet encourage even more students to leave campus at noon, with similar results?

Members of the Chico Planning Commission raised these and other questions when the proposal came before them at their Oct. 3 meeting. The commissioners voted to have the applicant return later with an enhanced proposal that included more greenery, a larger outside eating area, better signage warning both drivers and pedestrians of the others’ presence, and so forth.

Commissioner John Merz brought up several concerns, but he was far from the only commissioner to do so. The issue became controversial, however, when Merz subsequently came under attack in a Chico Enterprise-Record editorial for being a “longtime obstructionist,” and the commission itself was accused of “jerk[ing] businesses around for a while.”

If the McDonald’s folks shared this opinion when they came back before the commission on Thursday, Nov. 7, they hid it well. Indeed, they had nothing but praise for city staff and the commission. As Efraín Corona, the regional construction manager for McDonald’s, said, the Oct. 3 meeting “initiated a great dialogue between us and the city,” and encouraged McDonald’s to go “above and beyond in responding to the commission’s requests.”

Commissioners, including Merz, appeared similarly pleased with the changes the applicants made on the site plan. But there was little McDonald’s could do to improve the safety situation on East Avenue.

The only audience members who spoke were Mike and Sue Christensen, teachers (she at PVHS) who live in the neighborhood. Sue Christensen noted that the general plan called for no drive-throughs in the neighborhood center and asked why no environmental review had been done. “What about all the cars idling at the drive-through” and the pollution they give off, she asked, adding, “This really isn’t a restaurant; it’s a drive-through.”

In response, Vice Chairman Ken Rensink later noted that, because there are two lanes in the drive-through, “cars will get through faster.”

The safety issue was addressed by Matt Johnson, a city traffic engineer. He noted that East Avenue in the PVHS area was relatively lightly traveled at 16,000 vehicles per day, and that there had been only four accidents involving pedestrians or bicyclists there in the past seven years. “That’s pretty low,” he emphasized.

Commissioner Toni Scott was pleased by the project. She noted its low-key design fits in well with the other buildings in the shopping center. “This is not a cookie-cutter McDonald’s,” she said.

She pointed out that the Chico Unified School District didn’t seem to be concerned. “If safety is such an issue,” she said, “the school district would be here, and they’re not.”

The vote was 5-2 for approval, with Merz and Chairman Matt Juhl-Darlington dissenting. They continued to be concerned that the project increased the safety risks for PVHS students and was not appropriate for the site.

Barring an appeal to the City Council, which seems unlikely, the Planning Commission’s action is final. This will be the fourth McDonald’s in Chico.

Remember the bureaucratic ordeal Robert Rasner, the owner of the Winchester Goose craft-beer bar, at Eighth Street and Broadway, went through earlier this year when he sought city approval of his liquor license? Turns out it was all due to a clerical error.

When the City Council updated its Title-19 zoning regulations as part of the general-plan update, it denoted “downtown north,” from Fifth to First streets, as an area in which no new liquor licenses would be approved. Unintentionally, however, the regulation was also written to apply to “downtown south,” the area from Sixth Street to Little Chico Creek.

The city ultimately was able to carve out an exemption for the Winchester Goose and approve its license. Since then, the error was discovered, and at its meeting the Planning Commission voted 6-1 to correct it, with Merz dissenting.

The matter will go to the City Council for final consideration.