More than 30 fast food restaurants have opened in the nearly two years that the D.C. Zoning Commission has been trying to pass the city's first regulations to restrict the location of these businesses.
Currently, residents in three neighborhoods from upper Northwest to Anacostia are fighting fast food restaurants that want to open in their communities.
The Zoning Commission is scheduled to take a final vote on its latest set of regulations April 8, but it appears that vote will be delayed. The commission delayed final passage of different versions of the proposed regulations four times last year.
The delays are attributable largely to the commission's problem in defining a fast food restaurant so that it applies only to the national chains and not to small, locally owned carryouts. Local attorneys hired by national fast food chains have been successful in persuading the commission to continue to tinker with definition and permitted locations for the fast food establishments.
One zoning attorney, who represents several national fast food chains but asked not to be identified, said his clients have "moved more expeditiously to develop existing sites when they heard about the [proposed] regulations."
At least three restaurants that were in the initial planning stages opened in the past year, nearly three years ahead of schedule, in zones where the outlets would have been prohibited under the first proposed regulations, he said.
"I can't understand the delays, this [passing new regulations] is imperative," said Patricia Wamsley, chairwoman of Cleveland Park Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which is fighting plans by McDonald's to open a restaurant at 3407 Connecticut Ave. NW, across from the Uptown Theater.
"I thought things would go very smoothly and we'd have the regulations before the big push of [subway stations.] As they get built everyone wants to open a fast food joint."
Steven Sher, executive director to the zoning commission, said he knows that fast food restaurants are rushing to open before the commission votes. "Any time you consider amendments to an existing regulation you always face the problem of someone trying to get in under the deadline."
But he said there is no reason for the commission to pass temporary emergency regulations to stop such openings, because "any commercial establishment is going to generate trash and noise and traffic . . . . At this point the commission hasn't been convinced there is any situation that requires us to take action on an emergency basis."
The zoning commission started working on the regulations in May 1983 after the Le Droit Park ANC asked the commission to restrict fast food establishments primarily to downtown locations because their proliferation was bringing litter, loiterers and increased traffic to neighborhoods across the city.
The first proposed regulations were issued in January 1984. They have been revised twice, each time increasing the number of areas where fast food restaurants would be permitted.
Under the current proposal, fast food businesses would be banned in the smallest neighborhood shopping areas. They would be allowed only in large neighborhood shopping areas such those along upper Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues if they located in a row building in a block. To open in an existing free-standing building in these areas, they would need city approval.
The outlets would be generally free to open in any building in other commercial areas such as those at Wisconsin and Western avenues NW, Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street NW, and Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Avenue SE. Currently, fast food restaurants are allowed in all areas zoned for commercial use.
There are approximately 130 fast food restaurants in the city, compared to 95 a year ago, according to the city Office of Business and Economic Development.
Two of the three restaurants now being opposed would be allowed under the latest version of the proposed regulations. One proposed in Michigan Park, in upper Northeast, would be prohibited under these rules.
McDonald's plans to open its first Connecticut Avenue outlet in a vacant store on the heavily traveled block between Macomb and Ordway streets, which is already the address of several restaurants, a bank and a chain grocery store.
Cleveland Park residents first heard rumors of McDonald's plans six weeks ago, Wamsley said. "By then McDonald's was way ahead of us. I think they McDonald's tried to keep it from us," Wamsley said.
Residents of Anacostia recently won a battle to prevent a McDonald's from renovating a vacant former auto dealership at V Street and Martin Luther King Avenue SE, which is within the Anacostia historic district.
But the Anacostia historian for the Historic Preservation Review Board, which voted to disapprove the architectual plans for McDonald's, said the board is "actively working" with McDonald's on an acceptable design even though, she said, residents are "violently opposed" to any McDonald's design.
Teri Capatosto, media relations supervisor for McDonald's, said the chain "gives back to the community" by contracting with local dairy, meat and paper suppliers, organizing neighborhood cleanups and sponsoring local fund-raising projects.
In Michigan Park in upper Northeast, Jannie Campbell, a longtime homeowner, said she found out that a fast food restaurant was being built 15 feet from her bedroom window when she talked to construction workers. "They told me it was going to be a Wendy's. I couldn't believe it," she said.
Campbell worries that the new restaurant, planned for 4925 South Dakota Ave. NE, in a former gas station and minimarket, would bring increased drug traffic.
"At the McDonald's at Emerson Street and South Dakota Avenue across the street from the new Wendy's location there are always 25 to 30 people hanging around out front every night . . . young kids on drugs," she said. "That never happened before they had these fast food places to meet at."
Sgt. Dennis Siberg, of the 5th District police, which includes the Michigan Park area, said, "They do loiter there, but it's not one of our drug problem areas. We make maybe one or two arrests every other month there for drug use."
Campbell added, "I really think the [fast food] people who come in here are insensitive to our neighborhood and they're just coming here to make money. We're all homeowners and we're already paying top tax dollars for our neighborhood and we're maintaining it . . . . [Fast food restaurants] automatically depreciate our property by coming in here and ruining the neighborhood."