Future of fire-damaged McDonald's building in limbo

Zoning code dictates new structure at Broadway, 12th must be pedestrian-oriented

Nearly a year after the McDonald’s building at Broadway and 12th Avenue suffered fire damage, the fate of the site — and the seeming delay in the building’s rehab or demolition — is uncertain, in part due to Metro’s downtown code.

Frank Brewster, McDonald’s regional development director, said his team and Metro Planning Department officials are in discussions regarding the matter. The company will go before the Metro Planning Commission on Oct. 25 to request a setback variance related to the code. Previously, McDonald's had requested a modification from the code's standard (which requires buildings be located no more than 10 feet from the property line). That request, made to the Metro's design review committee, was denied.

At issue: McDonald’s wants to replace the fire-damaged building — its exterior easily recognized by the company’s long-standing French-fry-themed roof — with one of its contemporary prototypes on the existing footprint. However, the downtown code requires new construction to be sited in such a way that addresses pedestrians more so than cars. In short, buildings must be constructed fronting sidewalks and not be positioned such that they are “severed” from the sidewalk by surface parking.

The existing McDonald’s is surrounded by surface parking, which is the typical suburban model for a freestanding fast food structure. Of note, the McDonald’s at Broadway and 12th is the only freestanding fast food eatery with a drive-thru and located on the fringe of downtown Nashville's central business district.

Many cities nationwide no longer allow — if they ever did — such a suburban model within their downtowns.

If McDonald’s, which has a land lease for its building and has continued to pay rent since the December 2011 fire, is denied its request from the Planning Commission, the company could request a rezoning of the property. Such a move could prove time consuming and spur public opposition from the city’s urban planning advocates. In addition, legal fees might be a factor.

“We might likely step back and remodel if we can’t get a variance,” Brewster said, adding that to position a new building along the southwest corner of the Broadway and 12th intersection and still accommodate drive-thru motorists, which generate about 70 percent of the site’s business, would be very difficult, if not impossible.

"The site positioning advocated by Metro does not allow us to serve the drive-thru component of the business," Brewster said. "We are concerned about potential safety issues and disruptions to traffic due to the high arrival rate of drive-thru customers of the existing business."

In the world’s largest cities, McDonald’s has eateries that do strictly walk-up business. But in second-tier cities and smaller, the company prefers the suburban model.

Craig Owensby, Metro Planning spokesman, said the department has found examples of pedestrian-oriented urban-positioned fast food eateries in mid-sized cities. For example, McDonald’s has a building in Oklahoma City’s Brick Town (see image below courtesy of Google Maps) that provides some street-framing definition. San Diego and Lousiville also have pedestrian-oriented McDonald's in their urban cores, he said.

“It’s certainly possible to build one using the urban model,” Owensby said. “It’s been done in Denver and in several other [medium-sized] cities. Those urban McDonald’s do include drive-thrus.”

Brewster, who is based in Indianapolis, said to compare sites in mid-sized cities can be misleading because not all sites are the same size and different sites generate different percentages of drive-thru business.