Fast-food franchises have transformed the American landscape with their off-the-shelf, billboard-like building designs that populate highways, downtown centers, and suburban commercial strips. Looking for a Big Mac? The golden arches of McDonald’s can be found in over 100 countries today. Without doubt, the standardization and consistency of these restaurants’ architecture – building materials, bold colors, neon signage, logos, lighting – helped create one of the world’s most recognizable brands and recognizable places. But what has it done to a community’s sense of place?
Many municipalities and concerned citizen groups are now fighting to prevent fast-food franchises from opening the cookie- cutter designed restaurants that they believe threaten the character of their community. Oftentimes zoning is the best weapon. In the mid-1990s residents of Montpelier, Vermont rallied to defeat a McDonald’s application to open a restaurant in the historic downtown, citing zoning-related concerns about traffic and parking.
But today many Main Streets and downtowns are depressed and in some communities the only new business development is coming from national retail chains. The choice doesn’t have to be black or white: either economic development or small town charm – one or the other but not both. When met with strong resistance from a community, chains are often willing to make concessions, deviating from standard design to custom design that reflects the character of the local community.
McDonald’s patrons in New Hyde Park, New York dine in the Denton House, a two-story colonial mansion located at a busy intersection along Long Island’s Jericho Turnpike. McDonald’s purchased the historic structure in 1985, intending to demolish it and erect one of several standard designs in its place. Residents fought back and the building was designated a local landmark, thereby ending all demolition plans. Unwilling to give up such a prime location, McDonald’s worked with architects to adaptively reuse the mansion, saving the historic details and adding an extension off the back to accommodate additional needs. Joel Snodgrass, a preservationist who lobbied for the building’s adaptive reuse, said: “If McDonald’s can do it, anyone can do it.” The quirky location might work to the restaurant’s advantage, as it frequently appears in blogs and other media as a must-see roadside attraction.
Today cities and towns are battling for place-specific designs not only for fast-food restaurants, but for chain drugstores, banks, and big box retail stores. Communities must be prepared and organized to protect their communities from insensitive chain store proposals. But communities must be willing to make certain concessions – including variances for parking requirements and zoning regulations – to encourage chains to adaptively reuse historic buildings or to construct new buildings with original designs that reflect the local character of a place.