Hooters halted, Dunkin’ danglin’
Formula biz limits pass, will be studied later
By Chris Busby
The Portland City Council effectively put the kibosh on plans to open a Hooters restaurant downtown. By a five-four vote, the Council approved a complex set of restrictions aimed at limiting the number, size and density of so-called “formula” restaurants and some types of retail businesses in the Old Port, Bayside and parts of downtown.
An amendment to this order now directs the city to form a “stakeholders group” to study and debate the details of the ordinance the Council just passed and report back with suggested changes. The report of this group, which has yet to be formed or fully conceived, is not expected until sometime next year.
Hours earlier, the Council postponed action on a more limited zoning change that could nix plans to open a Dunkin’ Donuts in Deering Center. Councilors cited a lack of relevant data upon which to make a decision.
The zone change would ban businesses that attract more than 65 vehicular trips during any given hour in the morning and afternoon traffic rush periods. Councilors were confused about the basic concept behind this number. Some thought it meant 65 round-trip visits to the store, but city Planning Division Director Alex Jaegerman confirmed that a vehicle entering the store’s parking lot is counted as one trip, and the same vehicle leaving is counted as a second trip.
This matter is expected to be revisited at the Council’s Dec. 4 meeting, the first official meeting of two newly elected councilors, Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall, who represent districts on the peninsula that would be affected by the change. Small-sized, so-called “pocket” business zones on Munjoy Hill and in the West End and Libbytown have the same zoning as Deering Center, as do several other parts of town.
The chain that dare not speak its name
Though some Councilors contended otherwise, there was widespread suspicion among members of the public who packed Council Chambers last night that both ordinance changes are aimed at specific formula eateries.
The traffic-based measure in play in Deering Center is purportedly intended to make such areas more “pedestrian friendly.”
“Its purpose is to put the ‘neighborhood’ back in the Neighborhood Business Zone,” said outgoing Mayor Jim Cohen, who noted that the trip limit would apply to any type of business.
But several people questioned whether this zone change would have arisen had a “mom-and-pop coffee shop,” as one put it, proposed to open in the building, last occupied by a pizza joint 18 months ago. As the Portland Press Herald reported in a recent article, neighborhood opposition arose when the Dunkin’ Donuts was proposed last year. It sparked a petition campaign and fostered the formation of the Deering Center Neighborhood Association.
Likewise, the city ordinance to limit formula businesses quickly followed the announcement of plans to open a Hooters next to the Cumberland County Civic Center, on Free Street.
Hooters cannot open in the space currently occupied by The Stadium, a sports bar and restaurant, because it would be within 200 feet of another formula eatery, Margaritas Mexican Restaurant & Watering Hole, on Brown Street. According to its Web site, there are 19 Margaritas restaurants in New England – two in Portland.
By the standard that applies to “formula” businesses a couple blocks away, in the larger of the two new formula-limit zones, Margaritas would not be considered a formula restaurant. In the bigger zone, a business must share features with at least 30 other domestic businesses to be subject to the restrictions.
Margaritas could, in theory, open a third Portland location in Bayside or on the eastern waterfront relatively unhindered. Hooters could also, in theory, open in those areas provided it met a separate set of less restrictive size and location requirements.
A rush to judgment?
By the time councilors considered the formula limits, most were visibly exhausted, having just spent most of the past seven hours in a marathon session of lawmaking that spanned two calendar days. An afternoon session began at 4:30 p.m. yesterday. Following several hours of passionate public comment, the Council began debating the limits shortly after midnight.
Councilor Donna Carr introduced the amendment to form a “stakeholders group,” and it was subsequently clarified that she intended for the ordinance change to be approved today, followed by the creation of a group to study and discuss it in the coming weeks or months.
Councilors Cheryl Leeman, Ed Suslovic and Mayor Cohen supported a motion by outgoing Councilor Will Gorham to table the order, form the “stakeholders group” first, and reconsider the limits based on feedback from the group. They were outvoted by outgoing District 2 Councilor Karen Geraghty, Dr. Carr, and at-large councilors Jim Cloutier, Jill Duson, and the recently reelected Nick Mavodones, who will become Portland’s next mayor next month.
“I think you’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Gorham, who called the process of establishing the limits “rushed.” He and likeminded councilors pointed out that the new zones have not been considered by the Portland Planning Board.
(The Planning Board did consider and vote on the traffic limit proposed for the “pocket” business zones scattered around Portland. The board recommended the limit be rejected in a four-two vote, though Cohen said opponents on the board support technical clarifications he did not have the opportunity to introduce before the Council’s vote was postponed.)
In defense of the process that excluded the Planning Board, Cloutier said the formula zoning limits were “an economic regulation, not really a land-use [regulation].” But Leeman pointed to the title of the order that would establish them: “Amendment to Portland City Code Chapter 14 (Land Use) Article III.” And Gorham noted that the city’s economic development staff had not provided any comments on the limits in documents provided to councilors.
Mayor Cohen called the formula limits “one of the most significant issues to come before the Council in my years” on the body, and urged for more time to refine the specifics of the order before they become law.
The lawyer representing Stadium owner Michael Harris said Harris would be willing to delay his efforts to bring a Hooters to town for six weeks if the Council desired more time to study the matter.
A “dream” defeated
In addition to Hooters, the new limits apparently kill an Auburn woman’s plans to open what she called an “upscale deli” in the Old Port.
Michele Tribou said she was laid off when the independently owned bakery she worked at had financial difficulties. Determined to start her own business, she said she sought assistance from state agencies and small-business-assistance programs like SCORE, whose volunteer advisors suggested she consider operating a franchise of some sort.
Tribou didn’t name the chain publicly, but told The Bollard it’s Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli.
According to its Web site, there are currently 27 Heidi’s franchises, all but two of them in Colorado (one is in Arizona, the other in Illinois), though the site promises “more to come very soon!” Tribou said she’s already invested a substantial amount of time and money to realize her “dream” of opening a restaurant, and was in lease negotiations when the limits were crafted this fall.
Joe Pompeo, owner of the Stevens Avenue building where a local Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee hopes to operate, expressed similar frustration that his deal is now in limbo. He called his investment in the property the “future for my kids.”
City planning staff have been directed to gather a host of traffic statistics before next month’s Council meeting. Among them will be trip counts for similar businesses – in this case, formula restaurants without drive-thru service, as this 12-seat Dunkin’ would be.
It’s possible such a Dunkin’ location would not actually exceed the trip limit. Though this detail was not discussed yesterday, The Bollard has calculated that based on the 65-trip limit, the franchise could handle no more than 32 carloads of customers during a peak hour. On average, each customer or group of customers traveling in the same vehicle would have to enter the parking lot, park, enter the eatery, have their beverage and/or food prepared, complete their purchase, return to their vehicle and exit the parking lot in less than two minutes during the morning or afternoon rush.
Based on anecdotal experience at Dunkin’ Donuts locations throughout New England, this series of tasks is seldom completed in under 120 seconds, especially if incoming customers encounter a line during peak periods.