Chick-fil-A's solution to Cotswold traffic leaves city reluctantly considering a drive-thru rezoning, again

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Driving down Randolph Road at noon, you suddenly come to a stop behind a line of cars that are not moving. What is the support?

  • A fender bump? A construction zone? No, it’s chicken.

What’s going on: Chick-fil-A has come up with a plan that it says will fix this recurring problem in the Cotswold. He will tear the building down and rebuild it as a drive-in only establishment with no indoor seating. This is supposed to make your operation more efficient, getting customers on four wheels in and out quickly.

But here’s the problem: Charlotte leaders say they want dense, walkable neighborhoods, but Charlotteans rely on cars to get around. Thus, the great Chick-fil-A debate has persisted, preventing the city from fully committing to its walkability priorities.

  • “We have to decide what we are going to be,” Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston told Axios on Friday. “Are we going to be a city defined by suburban development? Or are we going to fulfill the commitments to create different types of appropriate urbanism in different parts of the city? If we’re going to be the latter, then we have to stick to that, with every decision we make. We cannot pick and choose. This is how the city and the development community built an unjust and unsustainable Charlotte for generations.”

Tuesday night, the council will vote on whether to approve the rezoning. A debate is inevitable.

  • “I feel like this is turning into a big policy discussion,” Chick-fil-A attorney John Carmichael argued before the city council in November during a public hearing. “We are trying to find a practical solution to an existing queuing problem for a use that has been around for 21 years.”

Why it matters: Charlotte’s desire for a more multimodal city is sometimes at odds with consumer demands and the fact that people here depend on their cars. And this isn’t the first time leaders have faced this juxtaposition.

  • The Cotswold Chick-fil-A diner has been closed for some time. Some think that making it even easier to drive will only make the lines as long as they used to be. (If you’ve ever thought, “Hey, the Chick-fil-A line is around the building, but it usually goes fast, so I’ll just get on the line,” then you’ve contributed to this.)

Details: The proposed redesign of the popular Cotswold location, next to Publix, includes two direct access lanes and a third bypass lane around the building.

By the numbers: Chick-fil-A is expected to continue to draw the same number of car trips per day (an estimated 1,980) if it is redeveloped as drive-only, according to a study by the Charlotte Department of Transportation.


Chick-fil-A at 12:30 on a Friday. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

What they are saying: Ry Elkins, a teacher who bikes from Uptown to Myers Park every day to get to work, told the council during the November hearing that he would back away from his equity commitments by approving the rezoning.

“They will admit that they are completely turning their backs on those advances,” he said, “as well as on people who choose not to or cannot make the automobile their primary mode of transportation.”

The last: Some terms that Chick-fil-A has proposed in its rezoning application may make the plan more palatable to undecided city leaders.

  • The latest design includes some outdoor patio seating near a pedestrian window.
  • Chick-fil-A is also pledging to contribute $70,000 to install a sign at the intersection of Randolph Road and Publix.
  • The rezoning also would not allow the land to be used for a car wash or auto service station if Chick-fil-A ever closed.

Retrospective scene: At this time last year, the city approved two controversial drive-thrus in areas that were close to Blue Line light rail and zoned as transit-oriented areas. One was a bank on Woodlawn Road, the other a Chick-fil-A on South Boulevard.

  • Tami Porter, owner of Chick-fil-A on Woodlawn Road, told the council that converting her restaurant into a drive-thru just a few years ago helped food get distributed faster and faster. But Councilman Winston has challenged that testimony. He said that he passes by every day and still notices traffic problems.

“I think we all keep seeing it spill out onto the streets,” Winston told Axios. “This is something that helps his business model, and it’s not good for the community right away or in general.”

The other side: Tariq Bokhari, who represents the district where Cotswold Chick-fil-A is located, argued at the November hearing that it is not up to individual developers to transition areas into walkable communities.

  • “We cannot even prioritize effective crosswalks around the entry and exit points of our schools,” Bokhari said. “We can’t expect someone to say, ‘Okay, drive-thrus are over, and all of a sudden people will just start coming across Randolph to grab a chicken sandwich and sit down.’ It doesn’t work that way.

City planning staff recommends The council approves the fast food chain’s petition, although it acknowledges that it is not aligned with long-term goals. Still, city planners think the redesign is reasonable because the Chick-fil-A already exists.

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