Larry Palm: 'People want to be critical of McDonald's, but that's not a principle I operate under.'
Residents of an east-side neighborhood are furious over the city's latest urban infill project: a McDonald's that is slated to be built in the parking lot of the Madison East Shopping Center on East Washington Avenue.
"How does a fast-food restaurant fall into the plan of making things more urban?" asks Mary Jo Walters, an area resident. "It's garbage food and garbage jobs geared toward poor people in our neighborhood."
The city Plan Commission approved McDonald's conditional use permit on June 20, though no residents came out in support of the plan, which doesn't require Common Council approval.
McDonald's is relocating from its current spot at 3051 East Washington, a few blocks down, because, representatives say, business has been hurt by visibility issues arising from an pedestrian overpass built in 2008. Last September, the city paid McDonald's more than $300,000 to settle a lawsuit seeking damages.
As with its current location, the new McDonald's will have a 24-hour drive-through.
Ald. Larry Palm says that a long-term plan for the East Washington corridor calls for a structure in the shopping center parking lot, adding that food politics is not a legitimate reason to turn away business.
"People want to be critical of McDonald's, but that's not a principle I operate under," he says. "We can't run a government based on the notion of what the end result is."
In letters opposing the project, residents presented a range of concerns, including increased traffic and pollution. They also questioned whether McDonald's is a good fit for what Walters calls a "junk food desert."
"In terms of finding healthy, nutritious food, there's nothing there," says Walters, noting the area's numerous other fast-food joints. "Why couldn't we get a grocery store instead?"
Residents are particularly concerned about an anticipated increase of 600 to 800 cars that McDonald's is expected to draw to the parking lot, which already sees considerable vehicle and pedestrian traffic. "You have to be very vigilant about where you step," says Elizabeth Meter Brooks, another neighborhood resident.
Brooks is particularly concerned about increased vehicle traffic on Hermina Street, which runs behind the shopping center. An agreement between residents and shopping center owners called for blocking entry to the parking lot from Hermina Street. But Palm says city engineers are against that idea, citing concerns about emergency vehicle access. Also, he says, the city has a policy of not dead-ending streets, which closing the entrance would effectively do.
"It's not as easy as just putting a wall up," he says.
Residents, meanwhile, are continuing their efforts to keep out McDonald's, though it's virtually a done deal.
"I'm going to keep fighting," says Walters. "At every neighborhood meeting, everyone kept saying they didn't want this, but [Palm] kept saying it'll be good for the neighborhood. I've learned to make noise."