Arch Enemies
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Gale Warning
Angel's Last Stand
-Daryl Gale

It All Comes Out in the Wash
-Mary F. Patel

The Bell Curve
City Paper's weekly gauge of Philly's Quality of Life

May 29-June 4, 2003

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Arch Enemies

UN-GOLDEN ARCHES: (l-r) Tess Kissinger, Beatrice Wright and Madeline Holler want a new grocery store instead of a McDonaldâs on this vacant lot.
UN-GOLDEN ARCHES: (l-r) Tess Kissinger, Beatrice Wright and Madeline Holler want a new grocery store instead of a McDonald's on this vacant lot. Photo By: Michael T. Regan

It appears that Fairmount neighbors have been successful in their attempts to stop McDonald’s.

They blasted through once-divisive boundaries, forming a neighborhood group that brought residents from Fairmount and Brewerytown together.

Racial and economic differences mattered little, even though one neighborhood was in the midst of an enviable renaissance of residential development while the other idled with average household salaries near $35,000. People on both sides of Girard Avenue near 27th Street had one goal: keeping the McDonald's fast-food behemoth from building a restaurant on a lot once occupied by a Shop n Bag.

Though property-value, traffic and litter concerns arose early on, it wasn't entirely about the golden arches. Charter members of the Girard Avenue Alliance (GAA) said they just wanted a new neighborhood supermarket to replace the one that closed six years earlier.

With locals forced to drive across town -- or pony up more money at the hoity-toity Whole Foods Market a few blocks away at 20th and Callowhill -- they cringed when the land seemed destined to become another drive-thru joint.

Around the same time construction vehicles pulled onto the lot to start construction in October, locals organized civic meetings, plastered the neighborhoods with fliers inviting people to join the effort and hung anti-McDonald's posters in their windows. At their protests, they loudly considered it a matter of life and death, saying local residents needed access to fresh produce rather than deep-fried meat.

They even handed out loaves of bread to people passing the site last Christmas Eve, urging them to join the fight to bring wholesome food to their neighborhood. Starting with a handful of people, the GAA says roughly 500 have enlisted with about 100 showing up at each of their meetings.

After a lengthy court battle, victory was theirs May 12 when Common Pleas Court Judge Matthew Carrafiello bounced the company's application back to the Zoning Board, even though they'd already built the outline for the building. At issue was whether hearing notices were posted on all sides of the property, as required by law.

Carrafiello, after a slew of hearings on the matter, agreed that neighbors weren't properly notified about the August hearing when the project was green-lighted. (In an unrelated case, McDonald's recently lost another battle in its effort to build at 43rd and Market. Rev. Larry Falcon, who led that anti-McDonald's charge, says the court upheld a construction stay based on environmental concerns on April 30.)

"Two communities came together. We persevered and never allowed petty differences to come between us," says GAA co-founder Al Alston, a Brewerytown resident who opened a Subway sandwich shop a block away on Girard, only to close it this month after a year and a half. "There was insane pressure from all sides but we passed our first hurdle. Now we have to redouble our efforts to get what we really want."

David Murphy, a regional McDonald's vice president based in Plymouth Meeting, still won't exactly say the project is dead but intimated as much.

"We haven't killed it yet but we are looking at problems with that particular site," says Murphy, who works for a company that posted its first-ever quarterly loss this year. "I don't want to say that [neighborhood opposition] didn't have any impact, but it wasn't the deciding factor. Opposition is not unusual to us. Anywhere we go, there are going to be people against us. We expect that."

Though an attorney for property owner Ronald Bleznak said the lease agreement remained valid last Friday, both Fifth District City Councilman Darrell Clarke and State Rep. Frank Oliver (D, 195th) say no McNuggets will be served. (GAA members say they've tried to work with the owners who apparently haven't returned their phone calls.)

"The community has spoken with respect to a McDonald's on that site and apparently, they've been successful in thwarting those efforts for a variety of reasons," says Clarke.

Still, the issue frayed relations between residents and elected officials. While thanking Oliver for championing a resolution to look into the dearth of supermarkets in urban areas statewide, GAA leaders chided Clarke. They say he knew they were vehemently opposed to the project, but representatives of his office rarely returned their phone calls when they sought his help. At one point, Alston says a Clarke staffer accused the group of being "rude."

"No development happens without the district councilman knowing about it. We've done all this work to prevent it from happening, but we're still waiting for Darrell to get in touch with us," Alston says. "He caved to unseen economic forces or he just didn't care. I don't know what's worse."

Upon hearing the GAA's concerns, Clarke produced a stack of letters indicating he attended meetings and tried bringing supermarket operators to the site even before the McDonald's deal was signed. They include the Save-A-Lot and Pathmark chains that have both decided against building.

The councilman says his initial efforts were geared toward bringing a new market to the site but that each time they tried, store operators said the lot was too small for their needs. (Planners said 50,000 square feet would be needed "to have a profitable market at that location," according to Clarke.)

"Pathmark must decline any interest in this location as the existing store is too small with inadequate parking in a neighborhood location," wrote Chuck Chisholm, the chain's senior real-estate negotiator, in March 1998.

Oliver says he's already contacted both companies -- along with the state Food Merchants Association -- to rejuvenate interest. Even though Oliver's been working with the company, the GAA opposes Save-A-Lot -- they consider it low-end -- and are trying to get the Fresh Grocer chain to build a store like the one at 40th and Walnut.

Clarke remains offended by the suggestion that he didn't help.

"As we've been all along, we're willing to entertain any operators who want to come in and offer help from the city," Clarke says.

GAA members, however, maintain he just didn't do enough throughout the process when they needed him most. Sure, he attended civic meetings, but the councilman was nowhere to be found during recent months when the issue really heated up.

For evidence, they claim Clarke told prospective investors that the property was unavailable during the legal battle. Clarke responds that he did nothing wrong since there was a lease in place between the owners and the fast-food company.

"If I don't cave to the Phillies at Broad and Spring Garden, why am I going to cave to McDonald's? The reality is, [Alston] has a Subway and he didn't want the competition," says Clarke, claiming the GAA's membership numbers in the dozens, not hundreds. "At community meetings, people have alluded to companies wanting to come in but I haven't heard any more than that. I could open a 60,000-square-foot supermarket there tomorrow and they still wouldn't be satisfied."

"We'll just be happy with a supermarket there, Darrell, and it doesn't even have to be that big," GAA member Bob Walters responds.

Alston says the group will now wait until June 8, the last date an appeal could be filed, "just to make sure they aren't going to try a little trick." They also plan to work closely with Oliver in coming months. It may not be the easiest of efforts, considering the fact that they've been through this all before.

But even though Clarke concedes the neighborhood is "back to square one" when it comes to getting a supermarket, the GAA still holds out hope for a bigger victory.

"We have to get a deal done soon, before they decide to use that land for residential development. We want a real market with lots of produce, organic products, store brands and national brands. We need a whole range of things for people on tight budgets and for those who will only eat high-end foods. This neighborhood will support that," Alston says. "It's going to be a long process but suddenly, this is an extremely valuable and high-profile lot."

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