POLL: Chipotle in Decatur — share your thoughts:
GMX Real Estate Group announced Wednesday that a Chipotle Mexican Grill would be part of its proposed development at the corner of U.S. 51 and Ash Avenue. Neighbors object to the development because of traffic, noise and other concerns. The final decision rests with the Decatur City Council. What do you think about the proposal?
DECATUR — Most members of the Decatur City Council said they have not decided how to vote on rezoning of U.S. Business 51 and West Ash Avenue. Developers revealed Wednesday they plan for a Chipotle Mexican Grill to anchor a new shopping development at the site.
Only one, Councilman Pat McDaniel, said he remained opposed to the controversial plan. Others, including Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, said they were unsure.
“We will do our best to be open-minded, (but) we have financials we have to deal with,” Moore Wolfe said, referring to the city budget passed this week with a $3.2 million deficit. “The Chipotle people chose this site because of the traffic. And the neighbors do not want any more traffic.”
The corner, located across the highway from a Walmart and other high-volume retail, is part of a residential area, and neighbors have hotly contested the rezoning that would allow for new businesses to be built there. Representatives for developer GMX Real Estate Group, LLC revealed that Chipotle was part of the plans Wednesday in a letter to city officials that also attempted to address residents’ concerns about traffic, noise and other factors.
They had repeatedly declined to answer questions at a public meeting Nov. 27 about what restaurants were planned for the spot.
The council will make the final decision, likely in January, Moore Wolfe said. Scheduling conflicts could prevent all seven council members from attending the Dec. 18 meeting.
Before it votes, the council will receive a recommendation from the Decatur Plan Commission, which will hear the proposal and vote Thursday. Even if the commission votes to support the plan, the council can choose to reject the proposal.
Council members Chuck Kuhle, Dana Ray and David Horn said Wednesday they were still considering the matter.
Kuhle said he plans to listen to all sides before making a decision. He continues to hear from people both for and against the rezoning, and that he sees no reason to reveal his position on the rezoning until the day of the vote.
Horn said the developers have started to address concerns raised during the public hearing, and that the council needs to consider how the commercial development would affect the neighborhood and the rest of the city.
Ray said she wants to hear from the neighbors and to take the Plan Commission’s recommendation into account.
“The neighbors’ concerns about traffic will need to be addressed and reviewed we still need to make sure that an adequate job is done addressing their concerns and hearing possible solutions from the development,” she said.
In a statement about why he would not support the rezoning, McDaniel said the development would harm the neighborhood and that he wanted to keep the northern entrance to the city as visually appealing as possible.
“Why would we be irresponsible in helping destroy that balance of that corridor and that neighborhood area for a ‘small fist of additional sales tax dollars’ ...?” McDaniel said in the statement.
Councilman Bill Faber said he would not have time to talk about the matter until Thursday. Councilwoman Lisa Gregory did not return a message seeking comment.
The controversy is not new to several of the council members, who considered rezoning the same site for an Aldi grocery story in 2015. Residents also passionately opposed that development, which the council ultimately rejected in a 4-3 vote.
Both Moore Wolfe and Ray voted to approve the rezoning for Aldi, while Faber, Gregory and McDaniel voted against the measure. Horn and Kuhle were elected to the council earlier this year.
The council is unlikely to take up the matter at its Dec. 18 meeting because Kuhle will be traveling before it and is not sure if he will make it back in time.
Neighbors’ objections continue
For developers, the site is highly attractive because of its high traffic count and location near other retail. Walgreen’s, Panera, Walmart and other businesses are across the highway. But on the west side of U.S. Business 51 are well-established neighborhoods, many with residents who have lived there for decades and say they do not want the area disrupted by more retail, and the traffic it brings.
For some, those concerns were only amplified by the prospect of a new Chipotle.
“We want it to stay residential,” said Julie Bresnan, who has lived in her home directly across the street from the planned development since 1993. “If anything, I think that (Chipotle) will increase traffic even more, make it more of a nightmare.”
The increased traffic that Chipotle could cause was another in a list of concerns raised by Pam Ambeau, who has lived at her home since 1977 and would live right next to the proposed development. Knowing the identity of the main tenant did nothing to change her mind.
“We don’t really care who is in it, it would just create too much havoc,” Ambeau said Wednesday afternoon. “We just assume leave it alone, both to the city and developers. It doesn’t matter who is in there.”
In the letter dated Dec. 4, GMX co-manager Andrew S. Goodman said corporate leadership of Chipotle directed the group to the Decatur market and the specific development site. The letter also provided more details about the restaurant's plans for traffic flow, trash disposal, noise reduction and other logistical issues.
Goodman did not return messages seeking comment left at his office and his cell phone Wednesday. Chipotle representatives did not return a message seeking comment.
Many of the neighbors’ concerns are related to traffic. Bresnan said vehicles routinely travel well above the 35 mph speed limit on Ash Avenue.
With GMX estimating that the 10,400-square-foot shopping center would eliminate between 10 to 12 spots on Ash Avenue for street parking, she and other residents say the situation will be just as bad as what they feared would happen with a new grocery story.
“They’re pushing the straight lane down Ash (Avenue) toward MacArthur (Road) right against the sidewalk, right against my property,” Bresnan said. “We park cars in our driveway, and I’m scared to death that one (driver) is going to realize, ‘oh crap, I was suppose to turn’ or ‘I was suppose to go straight,’ and they’ll hit the rear of my car parked in my driveway.”
Chipotle long-desired for community
The Chipotle franchise, known for its cafeteria-style ordering and menu that includes burritos, tacos, burrito bowls and salads, has been one of the most requested restaurants for Decatur. It claimed the top spot in a 2014 survey conducted by the city to learn residents' most-desired retail and restaurants.
“This area supports chain restaurants,” Moore Wolfe said, noting the continued success businesses such as Texas Roadhouse and Olive Garden have had since first opening in the Decatur area. The region also has proven its support for Mexican food, with a number of traditional restaurants and several quick-service dining options added in recent years: Burrito Truck at Pershing Road and U.S. Business 51, Burrito Express in Hickory Point Mall and Solsa American Burrito Co. in both Decatur and Mount Zion.
Solsa owner Paco Greenwell said Wednesday that he welcomed the competition and hoped his business would stand out. If rezoning for Chipotle is approved, Greenwell said it would be a good opportunity to look at his own operations and see if there are areas for improvement.
“Even though we’re kind of in the same realm, we offer a lot more options than what Chipotle does,” said Greenwell, who also owns Paco’s Sol Bistro in downtown Decatur. “At the end of the day, the most important thing I’ll say is that I hope everybody remembers to support their local businesses.”
Staff writer Claire Hettinger contributed to this story.