Jan 17, 2023 - Business

Chick-fil-A’s solution to Cotswold traffic leaves city grudgingly considering a drive-thru rezoning — again

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Editor’s note: Chick-fil-A’s rezoning petition passed 8-3 at Charlotte City Council’s Jan. 17 meeting. Braxton Winston, Renee Johnson and LaWana Mayfield were opposed.

Driving up Randolph Road midday, you’re suddenly stopped behind a line of non-moving cars. What’s the hold-up?

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

What’s happening: Chick-fil-A has devised a plan it claims will fix this reoccurring issue in Cotswold. It will tear down the building and rebuild it as a drive-thru-only establishment, with no indoor seating. This is supposed to make its operation more efficient, getting customers on four wheels in and out fast.

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, stopping 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 honor the commitments to create different types of appropriate urbanism in different parts of town? If we are going to be the latter, then we have to abide by that, every decision that we make. We can’t pick and choose. That’s how city council and the development community built an inequitable and unsustainable Charlotte over several generations.”

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

  • “I feel like this is getting blown up into a big policy discussion,” Chick-fil-A’s attorney, John Carmichael, argued to city council in November during a public hearing. “We’re trying to find a practical solution to an existing queuing problem for a use that’s been there 21 years.”

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

  • The Cotswold Chick-fil-A’s dining room has been closed for some time. Some think making it even easier to drive through will only make the lines just as long as they were before. (If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Hey, the Chick-fil-A line is wrapped around the building, but it usually goes by fast so I’ll get in line,” then you have contributed to this.)

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

By the numbers: The Chick-fil-A is expected to continue drawing the same amount of car trips per day (an estimated 1,980) if its reconstructed as drive-thru-only, according to a study by the Charlotte Department of Transportation.

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

What they’re saying: Ry Elkins, a teacher who bikes from Uptown to Myers Park daily for work, told council during the November hearing that it would be going back on its equity commitments by approving the rezoning.

“They will be admitting that they are completely turning their back on those strides,” he said, “as well as on the people who either choose not to or cannot make a car their main mode of transportation.”

The latest: Some terms Chick-fil-A has proposed in its rezoning request may make the plan more agreeable to hesitant city leaders.

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

Flashback: This time last year, the city approved two controversial drive-thrus in areas that were near the 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, the owner of the Chick-fil-A on Woodlawn Road, told council the conversion of her restaurant to a drive-thru only a few years ago has helped get the food out quicker and faster. But council member Winston has challenged that testimony. He said he drives by daily and still notices traffic problems.

“I think we all continue to see it pour out into the streets,” Winston told Axios. “This is something to aid their business model, and it’s not good for the community immediately or at large.”

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

  • “We can’t even get effective crosswalks prioritized to be around the ingress and egress points of our schools,” Bokhari said. “We can’t expect someone to say, ‘OK, drive-thrus are gone and all of a sudden, people are just gonna start walking across Randolph to grab a chicken sandwich and sit down.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

City planning staff is recommending council OK the fast food chain’s petition, although they acknowledge it doesn’t align with long-term goals. Still, city planners believe the redesign is reasonable because the Chick-fil-A already exists.


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