In a stinging rebuke to city planners, the Falls Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously, on Tuesday night, to overturn an interpretation of the city’s code that had blocked the construction of a Tim Hortons cafe with a drive-thru in the 400 block of Buffalo Avenue. The challenge to the code interpretation came from Merani Hospitality. The developer of several Falls hotel properties, Merani contends that the Hortons cafe is a key retail component of a larger 39 unit apartment project slated for a vacant lot at 430 Buffalo Ave., directly across the street from the developer’s DoubleTree hotel.
The property is zoned R4H, a historic residential district.
“We do pay special close attention to the requirements of that district,” Merani Hotel Group’s Vice President of Operations Michael Marsh said. “Everything we operate is in a first class manner.”
The dispute, Marsh said, was over a decision made by the city’s director of planning, Tom DeSantis, approving every aspect of the project except for a drive-thru lane for the Tim Hortons cafe.
“Tim Hortons corporate requires a drive-thru,” Marsh said.
DeSantis issued a decision to the developer that indicated that a drive-thru was not an appropriate use in a historic district.
Merani’s lawyers disagreed.
“There is nothing in the code that doesn’t permit (a drive-thru),” Merani attorney Kristy Frame told the Zoning Board. “There is nothing in the code that prohibits a drive-thru and the overlay district expressly permits (a drive-thru). We believe (the drive-thru) is an accessory use.”
That argument resonated with the zoning board members.
“I don’t believe drive-thrus are banned,” zoning board Chairman James Spanbauer said.
And despite passionate arguments from neighborhood residents and developers like Matt Green, an experienced urban planner, with nearby projects, the arguments fell on deaf ears.
“In years past, development for the sake of development led to bad planning decisions,” Green told the board.
A number of residents of the Parkway condominiums said they feared the impact on traffic and the walkability of the neighborhood.
“I love the development,” neighbor Kathy DuBois said. “I don’t like the drive-thru.”
City Council Member Chris Voccio told the board members their decision on the drive-thru was a referendum on whether the city was “open for business.”
“We can send a message, ‘We’re open for business. We want your business,’” Voccio said. “Or we can put up sign for business that says, ‘Keep Out.’”
Other pro-business speakers also urged the zoning board to overrule DeSantis.
“We should be rolling out the red carpet,” Ron Anderluh said of the Merani request. “Not putting obstacles in their way.”
Ultimately, zoning board member Craig Avery noted that restaurants are permitted uses in a R4H district and that “drive-thru use is not specifically allowed or disallowed” in the heritage district. Avery then moved to overturn the decision.