Charlotte wants to be more walkable. But drive-thru business is booming.

Charlotte wants to be more walkable. But drive-thru business is booming.

Chick-fil-A's renovated East Woodlawn Road restaurant, which is now drive-through only. Photo: Ted Williams/Axios

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Editor’s note: This story was updated after Charlotte City Council approved the Fifth Third rezoning on Jan. 18.

Today, the area around Woodlawn Road and South Boulevard is about as auto-centric as you can get high-speed traffic, strip malls and a massive intersection.

So it’s not surprising that Fifth Third Bank is asking the city for permission to build a new branch there with a drive-thru.

What’s happening: On Tuesday, Charlotte City Council voted 8-2 for the Fifth Third branch rezoning, the first of several upcoming decisions on new or expanded drive-thru businesses.

  • The Chick-fil-A and Bojangles next to each other on Randolph Road are also looking to tear down their buildings and replace them with drive-thru only business.

The conflict: When city planners rezoned the area and over 1,700 acres like it in 2019 for transit-oriented development, they had a different future in mind than making life easier for cars.

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  • The Fifth Third location is, after all, just a short walk to the LYNX Blue Line, and the walkable development that has occurred around the light rail is stretching farther south.

    Why it matters: The choice is one of several tests of how council balances the future desire for a more walkable, transit-friendly city with current economic demands.

    What they’re saying: Transit advocates worry that every exception made to the rules designed to promote those goals dilutes them. 

    • “This would move us further from the goal to make our city more inclusive and able to meet the mobility needs of our very diverse residents – an effort that we all have been working on for many years,” Shannon Binns, founder and executive director of nonprofit Sustain Charlotte, said in an email to council members.

    The other side: Chick-fil-A and Bojangles did not respond to requests for comment.

    In a statement, Lee Fite, president of the Carolinas Region for Fifth Third, said the bank has seen a drop in visits inside the lobbies of banks, and an increase in the use of drive-thrus and online banking.

    • “We make decisions to serve customers based on their preferences, and we continue see significant demand and transaction activity via drive-through access,” he said. “There are neighborhoods where many banks have made the decision to close, but we believe it is important that everyone have the opportunity to conduct their personal financial matters in a way that is best for them and, for many, that means a local branch with a drive-through.”

    Context: The transit-oriented development rules, part of a broader overhaul of Charlotte’s development regulations, were intended to better standardize what is built near the light rail. All of those rules implement the vision in the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which Charlotte City Council approved last summer.

    The transit-oriented zoning on the land where Fifth Third wants to build the bank does not allow for a drive-thru. The bank wants to change it to a category that would.

    • I strongly believe this would be the wrong message to send if council approves this petition,” Keba Samuel, chairperson of the Planning Commission, which advises council on zoning and land use issues, tells me. We don’t want to invest all that time and resources in developing the 2040 plan, only to allow development that goes against its goals.”
    • The zoning committee, part of the Planning Commission, narrowly voted to recommend council approve the rezoning. City staff is recommending against it.

    Yes, but: Many stations along the Blue Line, like the Woodlawn one, are still a ways from becoming the next South End.

    In the meantime, banks, fast food chains and retailers are relying more on drive-thru business amid COVID-19.

    • Chick-fil-A recently converted its East Woodlawn Road location to a drive-thru only to alleviate traffic.
    • Fifth Third said around 55% of its transactions in the Charlotte market occur at its drive-thrus. Branches at shopping centers without drive-thrus saw an 80% drop in business during COVID, compared to 24% at those with drive-thrus, the bank said.

    My thought bubble: One bank branch may not seem like the most consequential item on council’s agenda. But it’s the difficult, small decisions leaders will make that will add up to determine how our city develops.

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