I’m not loving it.
That was the impression left by the Design Review Board as many on the board expressed frustration and displeasure with their lack of authority over a recently announced remodel of the McDonald’s restaurant on High School Road.
There was an awkward Thanksgiving dinner-type of polite tension as board members shared their distaste with city officials over the board’s inability to influence the proposed upgrade of the restaurant, one of only two fast-food chains on Bainbridge and the only one with a drive-thru.
The upgrades detailed by McDonald’s in their permit application are of a type and scale that make them largely not subject to Design Review Board review, according to city officials.
“For the McDonald’s project, the design of the building needed to be reviewed inside design guidelines because it’s a brand-new building, essentially, the exterior of it looked completely new,” said Interim Planning Director Heather Wright.
“But there wasn’t a change in the intensity of the use, or there wasn’t an increase in the use, so they didn’t trigger an amendment to the site plan review,” Wright said.
Because the establishment’s existing site plan review was conducted upon initial construction in the early 1990s, the Design Review Board was being asked to provide feedback only as a courtesy, Wright said.
“We wanted your input because it is such a highly visible building,” she said.
Some on the board opined the situation had not been sufficiently explained during a prior initial presentation about the restaurant’s remodel, and so they were uncertain what was expected of them.
“I don’t think that was really communicated to us, that we were actually going to look at our design guidelines and think about this project with regard to the design guidelines,” said Board Member Jane Rein.
“It was called a courtesy visit, so we didn’t feel like we had any authority to say anything that would impact at all what was going to happen. So that’s a concern,” she said.
According to the application submitted to the city’s planning department, work on the existing McDonald’s building will include modifying the service counter where orders are taken, as well as new seating and improvements to the dining area and restrooms.
Interior public spaces are also planned for upgrades, and the work will include changes to the restaurant’s mansard roof that include new parapets. New accent walls and siding are also planned, as well as new paint and signs, including updated drive-thru menu signs and a pair of new 42-inch high Golden Arches.
Other upgrades include ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) improvements, but one of the big benefits to McDonald’s customers may be the addition of another drive-thru lane, as drive-up traffic often snakes around the building during the restaurant’s busiest times during the afternoon and evening.
A pedestrian connection will also be built from the restaurant to High School Road; the parking lot will remain the same.
City officials said the Design Review Board’s initial concerns had resulted in some alterations being made to the restaurant’s original remodel plans. Exterior strip lighting and a large painted logo have both been nixed. Also, the exterior paint’s shade will be more subdued and some of the more prominent signage has been downsized and will be illuminated only during business hours.
Still, several board members remained unhappy, reiterating lingering concerns about a slew of the design’s aspects, including paint, signage, lighting, landscaping, and the additional drive-thru lane.
While some insisted an additional drive-thru lane would certainly result in more traffic (and thus an increase in the intensity of the site’s use), Wright explained that city officials had determined the traffic impact was negligible as the extra lane primarily routed cars inside the parking lot that were already queuing at the restaurant.
Doubts were steadfast, however.
Board Member Peter Perry said, “I think you’re going to get a lot of comments from the public, and certainly from our side. I’m pretty sure that most of us do not approve of what they were about to do.”
He asked if representatives from McDonald’s would be returning to later meetings to acknowledge additional feedback and recommendations.
“Will they still come to the Design Review Board or was that considered the meeting?” he asked.
“That was the meeting,” Wright replied.
“I would strongly protest that that’s not how it was presented and that we would probably unanimously — I’m not trying to talk for all of us — say that’s not what happened,” Perry said.
He ultimately asked that the project be made to go before the Design Review Board in a more official capacity.
“We can’t make them go through a process that they’re not required to go through,” Wright said.
“Then how do we change the code to fix that in the future?” Perry asked.
“That’s something we can work on,” Wright said, explaining “code cleanup” and official action by the city council would be necessary to change the requirements.
Design Review Board Chairman Joseph Dunstan said he was concerned about public perception, that, should the newly upgraded restaurant not be in keeping with what are the perceived preferred aesthetics of Bainbridge Island, the board would be blamed.
“From our point of view, let’s say that the project goes forward and citizens have concerns,” he said. “It might come back as, ‘Well, the Design Review Board approved it.’ Well, no [we didn’t].”
Wright reiterated the project had been brought before the board for informational purposes. Confusion remained among several board members, however.
“I know they said we’ve appreciated [the chance] and I guess I’m saying for me not exactly, because what we did could not be official,” Rein said. “And that could be a liability issue later on down the line for the city, if the community comes out on this. Because McDonald’s is kind of a historically important addition to this whole island, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, my gosh, how could this [be]?’
“There’s nothing in writing that says what we actually said,” she added.
Looking ahead, Dunstan said such instances — which are often not brought before the Design Review Board at all — would be better handled by them.
“I think the word ‘courtesy’ is what’s confusing,” he said. “I think the concern is in the future, when we go forward, we’re not going to take the word ‘courtesy’ anymore as a word. We’re going to say we’re going to write up comments, we’re going to put them in documentings, because that’s the way it should go,” Dunstan said.