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St. Paul Round-up: Dunkin’ Donuts’ Saga on Drive-thrus

America runs on Dunkin’—or so the jingle goes. But a proposal to build a Dunkin’ Donuts shop with a drive-thru window in the Como neighborhood was brought to a screeching halt by the St. Paul Planning Commission. The dispute is an indication that as city officials work to create density and make St. Paul more bike and pedestrian-friendly, drive-thru food and beverage services may not fit in.

The commission in April rejected a conditional-use permit sought for a new building for Mac’s Fish and Chips and Dunkin’ Donuts. The site at the southeast corner of Larpenteur and Hamline avenues is eyed by Sarin Development. Developers said the project isn’t likely to go forward without a drive-thru and that they have tried to minimize congestion in their design, by pulling the building as close to Larpenteur as possible and making other site changes.

Project Engineer Wayne Stark told the Planning Commission Zoning Committee that a drive-thru is “critical” to the project.

Mac’s has been a mainstay in a former gas station at Hamline and Larpenteur for years. An adjacent dry cleaner would relocate to make way for the two new restaurants’ 3,000-square-foot building. It would have a coffee and doughnuts drive-thru window at the rear. Vehicles could enter and exit off Hamline or a  north-south alley just east of the site.

Como Community Council’s Land Use Committee gave the project conditional support, asking that improvements be made. The committee raised concerns about potential traffic backups and traffic flow, as well as queuing capacity for vehicles using the drive-thru window. Plans called for vehicles to enter off Hamline and exit onto the north-south alley that is just east of the site.

Developers’ representatives said changes have been made to the project to address neighborhood concerns, and that the conditional-use permit should be modified to meet site conditions.

“The big question is, what will be the impact on the neighborhood?” said Zoning Committee Chair Daniel Edgerton. He objected on traffic safety grounds.

Senior City Planner Josh Williams recommended denying it, noting that the project couldn’t meet all conditions. A minimum 60-foot separation is needed for a drive-thru lane and residential property. The closest resident property is 54.9 feet away. The vehicle egress is to be at least 60 feet from residential property; the actual distance would be 20.9 feet. There are also landscaping and buffering requirements

Williams said one issue with drive-thrus is that it’s “rare” for motorists to make good use of stacking or waiting space, which then causes spillover traffic.

Another objection is noncompliance with the city’s comprehensive plan. The area is defined as a residential corridor with established neighborhoods to the south. A drive-thru is an inappropriate use because commercial development at corners needs to have buffers that protect adjacent residences. The potential for increased noise and traffic, and the need for more evaluation of the drive-thru’s impact on area streets and traffic, also had to be considered.

In written and oral testimony, many neighbors expressed opposition. 

“To paraphrase our (State) Fair lingo: This is congestion on a stick,” said neighbor Craig Norman. Other neighbors said that while they want to see new development, it needs to happen with more consideration for traffic issues.

Some neighbors brought up the traffic safety problems encountered after a Starbucks opened in 2016 at Snelling and Marshall avenues. 

St. Paul has long required any type of drive-thru window service, be it for bank, restaurant or other business, to obtain a conditional use permit. The permits are used to regulate traffic flow, on-site vehicle stacking, speaker box noise and other issues. Most have been adopted with little controversy. When city leaders adopted a traditional neighborhood-style zoning about a decade ago, one intent was to limit drive-thru service and curb cuts in general.

The tolerance for drive-thrus changed after Starbucks opened in 2016. The Snelling-Marshall crossing carries about 67,000 vehicles per day. Motorists eager to get their coffee frequently cause traffic tie-ups and accidents. An off-duty police officer is on-site every weekday morning to direct traffic.

Cyclists complain that the Marshall bike lanes are often blocked. Frustrated neighbors live-tweet the traffic issues and have dubbed the business #carbucks and the area #Snarshall.

The Union Park District Council, which split 7-7 in 2015 as to whether the Starbucks permit should be granted, is now asking that it be revoked. City staff and Starbucks have responded by trying different turn restrictions and site modifications. Revocation of a permit would fall back to the planning commission.

“Obviously there’s a demand for drive-thru service,” said Julie Reiter, who recently stepped down as Union Park’s executive director. “But that has to be weighed against the traffic issues they cause.”

Since the “Carbucks” traffic jams, drive-thru lanes have gotten a wary reception. Earlier this year when a Dunkin’ Donuts and Red’s Savoy Pizza restaurant were proposed just a few blocks to the south on Snelling, one of the first questions asked at a neighborhood meeting was whether there would be a drive-thru. A room of more than 100 people burst into laughter at the question.

That building has no drive-thru planned.

So, have future St. Paul drive-thrus hit a roadblock? City planners and neighborhood leaders say it really comes down to location, location, location. In spots where more residential density is being proposed, many say a drive-thru and driveways don’t make sense. 

But in places where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic or a bike lane, a drive-thru could make sense. One area clamoring for a restaurant and even drive-thru coffee of any sort is the Lake Phalen area, where plans were approved earlier this year for a new development with a grocery store and coffee shop.

“We don’t have single coffee shop in our area of the East Side,” said District 2 Executive Director Chuck Repke. District 2 represents neighborhoods in  the northeastern part of the city. He said many residents there would welcome a coffee shop and the convenience of a drive-thru lane. 

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