A key review board has denied Chick-fil-A’s controversial request for a drive-thru in Van Ness. But it might not have the last word.

An early rendering of the planned Chick-fil-A in Van Ness.

At its meeting on Thursday, April 28th, the five-member Public Space Committee voted unanimously to deny Chick-fil-A a permit to widen an existing curb cut for a drive-thru at 4422 Connecticut Avenue, which is now the site of the Van Ness Burger King.

The committee, which has five members from various DC government agencies, made its decision based on testimony from Chick-fil-A, Van Ness community members and representatives, and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Office of Planning (OP) staffers. Ryan Westrom of DDOT and OP’s Tim Maher recommended against approving the curb cuts, concerned that the increased drive-thru traffic projected by Chick-fil-A would result in more conflicts between pedestrians and drivers.

Chick-fil-A says it’ll stop traffic backups, but not persuasively

There is already a drive-thru here for Burger King, but it gets little traffic. A Chick-fil-A would draw much more. To try to prevent traffic backups, the store plans to have three to four employees taking orders on iPads on the north driveway, more employees at another station for taking cash in the back, and another area on the south driveway with a door for more staff to deliver the food. They also mentioned using the rear parking lot for overflow, assuming there would be available spaces.

"What would prevent a back up onto Connecticut Avenue?” they were asked. Chick-fil-A had a ready response: They would hire an off-duty police officer to direct traffic. Matthew Marcou, the chair of the Public Space Committee, raised his eyebrow at this, and quipped, “DDOT can’t get any for other projects.”

Chick-fil-A also promised to have additional staff on hand to quickly handle orders if a surge in drive-thru business was causing backups. ANC 3F Commissioner Sally Gresham said promises of “self-monitoring” – which Chick-fil-A representatives continued to stress – were not enough. The city had no enforcement mechanism, she testified, if Chick-fil-A did not uphold its agreements.

Community groups and experts oppose the drive-thru

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F voted unanimously in February to oppose Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru. Steve Gresham, a member of an ANC committee formed to study Chick-fil-A’s application, testified about flaws in the drive-thru system, such as the lanes being too narrow to accommodate employees taking orders. And during peak hours of business, he said, cars could be blocking the sidewalk at either the entrance or exit of the drive-thru more than half of the time.

ANC 3F hired Karina Ricks, a former chair of the Public Space Committee, to consult. She stated in written testimony that the drive-thru did not meet regulatory muster. Ricks also said the drive-thru would create an unsafe environment for pedestrians and bicyclists – conditions that would run counter to DDOT’s moveDC, the long-term DC transportation plan, and the goals of Vision Zero to reduce all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the District to zero by 2024.

In addition, she said, the city was making substantial investments in Van Ness, in planning and implementation, to create a vibrant, walkable commercial area.

The Chick-fil-A can thrive without a drive-thru

Dipa Mehta, a co-chair of the economic development committee of Van Ness Main Street, presented research showing a safe, walkable environment is a key ingredient to fostering economic development. The car traffic generated by Chick-fil-A would be detrimental to the business climate at Van Ness, she said.

Chick-fil-A has stated in the past that the Van Ness location does not currently generate enough pedestrian traffic to support its business. However, I as a Van Ness Main Street board member testified that Chick-fil-A was underestimating the chain’s potential to attract walk-in customers from the immediate area, given the large number of high-rise residential buildings nearby.

Marcou asked Chick-fil-A about pedestrian traffic in Tenleytown, where Chick-fil-A is building a restaurant without a drive-thru. The answer: They had not done a pedestrian count there.

Though comments on Forest Hills Connection articles about Chick-fil-A’s plans indicate at least some residents support a drive-thru, the opposition has been more outspoken and organized. A Ward 3 Vision petition opposing the drive-thru collected 366 signatures. In addition, The Northwest Current published an open letter to Mayor Bowser from several signatories, including the owners of Bread Furst and Acacia Bistro, and co-presidents of the Hastings Condo Association, representing the building just north of the site at 4444 Connecticut. They asked for Bowser’s support in opposing the drive-thru.

Only one resident testified in support of the Chick-fil-A drive-thru. However, he explained that he had business ties to the location. He said similar driveway situations exist in nearby locations – at the Park and Shop in Cleveland Park, at the Whole Foods in Tenleytown, and at the Tenleytown CVS – and pedestrians adjusted.

Committee member Reg Bazile cut him off. “Those locations are not similar,” he said.

Marcou recommended that Chick-fil-A continue to pursue a Van Ness location, only without the drive-thru element. Chick-fil-A also has the option of going to court. That’s what a citizens’ group did in 1980, when a Burger King franchisee sought and received permits for the drive-thru in 1980. The court sided with the franchisee.

Van Ness Main Street President Mary Beth Ray said the community would support the restaurant without the drive-thru. “Our research has shown how wildly popular their food is, and we hope [Chick-fil-A’s] interest in Van Ness goes beyond the drive thru,” Ray said in an email. “Van Ness is open for business.”

This originally ran on Forest Hills Connection.