Palm Desert’s Fast Food Drive-Through Debate
By Heidi Simmons
Fast food: Go in or drive-through? With all the challenges we face in a day, this should not be a complicated decision. But for Palm Desert residents it is. For 30 years, the city has had a zoning ordinance restricting fast food restaurants to essentially “go-in” only. In 1996, the city amended the ordinance to create a Freeway Commercial Overlay Zone District allowing fast food drive-through along the Palm Desert exits of Interstate 10. Now, once again, Palm Desert residents will need to decide if fast food drive-through fits into the city’s future.
“Drive-through is an important convenience today,” said Dick Shalhoub, McDonald’s franchise owner. Shalhoub has 17 McDonald’s in the Coachella Valley. Excluding mall and Walmart McDonald’s, all of them have drive-through except the Palm Desert location on Highway 111 in the Palms to Pines Shopping Center. “Palm Desert is the valley’s retail hub. Citizens, working folks, tourists, go through the city everyday and we want to be respectful of their time and busy schedules.”
Along the Highway 111 corridor, from Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City, to Adams Street in La Quinta, for a stretch of nearly 11 miles, there are no fast food drive-throughs. There are only 20 traditional McDonald’s (sans drive-through) left in the entire state of California. Up to seventy percent of McDonald’s products are sold via drive-through.
Shalhoub has lived in the CV since 1983. He raised his family here. His son and daughter both graduated from Palm Springs High School. He has been here long enough to see the valley grow and change as he built McDonald’s valley-wide.
The Palms to Pines McDonald’s was originally built in 1975. Shalhoub purchased the franchise in 1984, which now needs to be remodeled and updated. So in June, Shaloub and his McDonald’s team met with Palm Desert City Manager John Wohlmuth, Mayor Jan Harnik and Councilmember Bob Spiegel about his plans for the ageing building to see what it might take to add an “inconspicuous” drive-through at the location that would not be visible from Highway 111.
At the following City Council meeting in July, Councilmember Bob Spiegel asked staff to place an item on the August agenda that would eliminate the long-standing prohibition on fast food drive-throughs in the City of Palm Desert.
Last Thursday, city staff had the issue on the agenda. They wanted direction from the Council regarding potential expansion of the areas in which drive-through restaurants would be permitted within the City of Palm Desert.
Staff included three options: 1. Initiate a zoning ordinance allowing drive-through restaurants citywide (allowed everywhere). 2. Initiate a zoning ordinance amendment to allow drive-through restaurants in additional, clearly defined locations (such as north of Frank Sinatra, on Highway 111, etc). 3. Make no change to the zoning ordinance regarding drive-through restaurants.
Shalhoub briefly spoke during the comments section saying technology in the fast food industry has changed to be far more efficient. He emphasized time, saying it was precious, and that drive-through was the best distribution of their products. He said the drive-through at that Highway 111 location would increase sales, generating tax revenue for the city and that the design requirements would make the area a little nicer and more “modern.”
In opposition, a woman from the Envision Palm Desert commission commented that she felt that Palm Desert has been a leader when it comes to “recycling and golf cart use and Art in Public Places.” She said drive-throughs don’t foster a sense of community, and it would be a shame to expand drive-throughs citywide. She said the group is very concerned about sustainability and suggested the council look into the emissions aspect of idling cars at fast food restaurants.
During Council’s comments, Spiegel said the reason he wanted it on the agenda was to make it easier and convenient for the residents. Spiegel said, “A woman with a lot of little kids doesn’t want to try to get out of her car, and go into McDonald’s with those kids. She wants to drive-through, pick up the sandwiches, take them home, and the French fries and the soda, and let the children eat. What’s wrong with that?” He finished his comments on the subject by saying, “It’s nothing criminal. It’s a convenience. That’s the reason why I asked to put it on the agenda.”
Mayor Pro Temp Jean Benson was part of the decision 30 years ago and couldn’t see how lifting the ban would enhance the city in any way. She said she thought it was sad that family values had “decreased so much that families have to eat in the car.” Benson added that she drives out to the I-10 when she wants fast food, and whether there’s new technology with drive-throughs, it didn’t interest her at all. Benson ended her comments, “I see no reason at all to change it.”
Councilmember Susan Marie Weber commented that she uses drive-through and also has to drive across town using more fuel than if she were idling. She said that today’s quick service restaurants are lovely, with drive-through, dine-in and patios. She said the world has changed. It’s a 24/7 world with people working two or three jobs and the Council should respect their needs for ease and quickness. She mentioned businesses coming in and the need to be competitive with other cities. Weber was confident the city could keep its high building standards with drive-through. “There are lots of us out there, lots of people out there, that need this convenience.”
Councilmember Van Tanner began his comments saying the reason for the “commission” was to get opinions about sustainability and it would be an insult to those who serve, to not get their response. “I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I need to be convinced one way or the other.” He finished by saying he wanted to get more response and wait to hear from those people who potentially use them [drive-throughs].
Mayor Jan Harnik agreed with Tanner, saying she wanted to respect the 120 valuable community members who volunteer their time and have been working for the last six months. She wants to allow them to come up with conclusions and present them to the Council. Harnik thought a decision should be in by April or May. She added that many residents were still out of the valley who should be included in the discussion and the Highway 111 Business Committee, currently forming, should be allowed to way-in as well. Harnik concluded by saying, “For us to take one little piece out of the Land Use and determine it tonight — I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do — I think it would not be a prudent way to act.”
Tanner made the motion to continue the conversation until the Council has more information from the Envision Palm Desert. Surprisingly, Spiegel seconded the motion. Benson was the only member to vote against the motion. So the issue now goes to the recently formed Envision Palm Desert.
Who is it that will decide fast food drive-through? Envision Palm Desert is made up of volunteers from the Palm Desert community. It is a “commission” made up of committees to help produce a community-wide vision for the city’s next two decades. This super committee includes Economic Development, Land Use, Education, Tourism and Marketing, Energy and Sustainability, Parks and Recreation, Transportation, Arts and Culture and Public Safety.
Envision’s job is to help build a strategic plan by contributing creative and forward thinking ideas that reflect a shared desire for the future of Palm Desert. The question is: Will they envision fast food drive-through?
Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara DeBoom is aware of the debate. “We will look at the pros and cons of each side,” she said. “The Board of Directors would make the decision if they were to choose one or the other. But we’ll remain open minded and take in all opinions.” DeBoom pointed out that the city already has drive-through banks and pharmacies. She added, “If this is the most challenging debate for Palm Desert, then that’s pretty good.”
There is no doubt that the McDonald’s location at the Palms to Pines Shopping Center is ideal for a drive-through: It is nicely set back and traffic signals allow for easy accesses in all directions. Certainly a new state-of-the-art restaurant would enhance the area and fit in well with the surrounding businesses in the center.
For Shalhoub, drive-through meets the needs of the handicapped, senior citizens, families and those with busy schedules. He respects the time of his customers and their changing demands. Shalhoub said, “We want to be good neighbors. The conversation is important and it’s good to get people involved.”