Planning Commission recommends easing drive-thru rules

The Ashland Planning Commission recommends loosening restrictions on downtown drive-thru windows — despite testimony from former city officials that drive-thrus promote an auto-centric culture and should fade away.

The commission voted Tuesday to recommend allowing the four downtown banks with grandfathered drive-thru windows to relocate or remodel without losing their ability to operate the drive-thrus. The commission's recommendation is scheduled to go before the City Council on July 17.

The legal change is being championed by the Ashland Food Co-op, which hopes to persuade Umpqua Bank next-door to move so the popular and crowded grocery store can expand its parking lot.

As the law stands now, Umpqua would find it almost impossible to get approval to bring along its drive-thru use if it moved to another location.

Planning Commissioner Troy Brown Jr. said loosening drive-thru restrictions could prompt the banks on Main Street to move and take their drive-thrus with them.

"This is not pedestrian-safe," he said, referring to cars going through drive-thrus while crossing paths with pedestrians.

Commissioner Richard Kaplan said the downtown banks have been locked into their locations and designs. Loosening the drive-thru law would give them the opportunity to change, he said.

Historically minded residents have long lamented the 1961 razing of the elegant Ashland Hotel to make way for the plain, flat-roofed Wells Fargo building. Three of the four downtown banks don't contribute architecturally to Ashland's historic heritage, according to planning documents.

The Wells Fargo building and other banks are prime candidates for redevelopment that could make them more historically compatible with the downtown area, according to Ashland Food Co-op General Manager Richard Katz.

Not everyone favors the loosening of drive-thru rules.

"It's just a convenience of our auto-centric culture that we promote things like this," said Commissioner Michael Dawkins, who was the only one to vote against the change. "We should try to eliminate all drive-thrus and have people get out of their cars."

Former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw said people have worked hard to make the downtown more pedestrian-friendly through moves such as installing benches and promoting construction on flat, walkable parts of Ashland rather than high in the hills.

Shaw said obesity in America has risen as drive-thrus have proliferated.

She said the Ashland Food Co-op will not solve its parking problem by expanding its parking lot.

"Parking is only solved by making it more of a problem. The more inconvenient it is to drive, the more people will walk," said Shaw, who lives on Oak Street and said she walks to the co-op.

Former city Councilwoman Cate Hartzell said Ashland has benefitted from visionaries in the 1980s and 1990s who wanted to curb pollution and car use.

Hartzell recommended that the Ashland Food Co-op split into two locations to reduce parking impacts and serve different neighborhoods.

"We have a lot of available commercial space right now," she said.

Ashland Transportation Commissioner Colin Swales said he would like to see Ashland's downtown gas stations disappear along with drive-thru windows.

He said the gas stations are like de facto drive-thrus since people don't have to get out of their cars to pump their gas.

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