Burger King, Taco John’s gets shaky yes; council members already objecting

By Brandi Makuski

City plan commissioners on Dec. 3 voted 5-2 in favor of allowing an exception for setbacks of two proposed fast-food drive-thru restaurants on the city’s north side.

The vote came after more than an hour of discussion on two separate requests from Kraemer Development LLC for proposed developments of Taco John’s, 1616 Academy Ave., and Burger King, 1617 Schofield Ave. Kraemer is working on behalf of Trig Solberg, who owns both vacant properties, and has been unable to find any other tenants interested in the space after searching for about a year.

Several members of the city council spoke to the plan commission, voicing concerns that allowing both properties a higher setback wasn’t in line with newly-adopted zoning changes for the Division St. corridor north of Fourth Ave.

Plan commissioners approved a 25-foot setback for both properties facing Division St. and as much as 90 feet from side streets. That exceeds the five-foot setback called for in the ordinance changes adopted over the summer.

Associate city planner Kyle Kearns said his office recommended approval on the changes because both sites have been empty for several years, and the small size of the lots prohibit other types of business.

Some on the city council weren’t buying the argument.

“The purpose of the change was to create a new development pattern, and create, over time, a dense development along the Division St. corridor,” said Tori Jennings, who represents District 1. “We need to keep our focus on what is best for the community, long-term. Are you going to maintain the status quo, or look to the future of what North Division can become with careful planning and strength of conviction?”

Jennings said the corridor can become “a true economic engine” with careful planning.

Councilwoman Mary McComb from District 9 said she was “very concerned with setting a precedent” that setback exceptions along the roadway would become the norm, not the exception.

“I have a vision of North Division of being a more walkable neighborhood,” she said. “It seems to be a choice here between having nothing there for the foreseeable future,” McComb said.

Alderman Shaun Morrow said he supported both projects, adding it would increase the city’s tax base and would be a good fit considering neighboring high schools, offices, and the university.

Greg Wokjtak was one of the few local residents to speak Monday night. The Frontenac Ave. resident pointed out several properties along the corridor did not meet with the new zoning changes—some of which generate a great deal of business and show no signs of closing.

“We need to bring tax base into this town,” Wojtak said.

Trevor Roark, who chairs the city’s bicycles and pedestrian street safety commission but said he was speaking as a private citizen, has repeatedly objected to the restaurants, saying their addition to Division St. North made the city’s north entrance look like “Anywhere, America,” and did nothing to enhance the look at feel of the street. Roark also suggested the lots could be split into smaller parcels for greater density.

“When is the city going to stop allowing design that degrades our land use and lessens our tax base?” Roark asked Monday night. “I understand the need to fill this lot, but if you allow these deviations, what’s stopping a new developer to ask for the same thing in four months?”

Despite the objections, Mayor Mike Wiza, along with commissioners Mary Kneebone, Dave Cooper, Dan Hoppe, and Pete Arnsten, all voted in favor of the exception. Commissioners Matt Rice and Anna Haines opposed.

The measure now moves on to city council for a final vote on Dec. 17.