South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

Work may begin soon on new $2 M McDonalds on Hilltop


February 14, 2012

The Hilltop may soon see work begin on a new $2 million project to replace the McDonalds restaurant on Brownsville Road in Knoxville.

Demolition work for the new McCafé style restaurant could begin in May and the new restaurant open for business sometime in August. The footprint of the new restaurant will stretch from Suncrest Street to Alice Street between Brownsville Road and Roll Way.

Even though the square footage of the new building will be slightly larger than the old building, approximately 100 square feet more, the seating capacity will actually decrease. James Rice, owner of the restaurant, said the seating has been redesigned to accommodate more singles and couples as opposed to having tables for four.

The elevation of the new restaurant will vary slightly from the old in an effort to accommodate access from Alice Street. Access to the new McDonalds will be from Brownsville, Suncrest and Alice, there will be no entrance on Roll Way as there is now.

Landscaping will include a fence running beside Roll Way, trees on the Suncrest side and a small wall retaining wall along Brownsville Road.

Speaking at a public meeting suggested by the City of Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment and facilitated by Councilman Bruce Kraus, Mr. Rice said some final design elements of the new building haven't been decided yet. However, some of the big changes will be taking up the entire block and having a duel-lane drive-through.

The Zoning Board sent the McDonalds' representatives back to the community after residents expressed reservations about the project at a recent zoning hearing.

Although generally in support of the new restaurant, several area residents attended the meeting to voice their concerns about trash, noise, light pollution, and drug dealing and use in and around the property.

The first issue brought up by neighbors was the volume of the speakers in the drive-through lane. They told Mr. Rice although the speakers don't usually seem too loud during the day, during the evening and night hours they can hear every word broadcast over the speaker, including personal conversations.

They said the restaurant was never supposed to be open 24-hours and are concerned the noise will only increase with a double drive-through lane. Music coming from vehicles waiting in line also disturbed some of the neighbors.

Mr. Rice, who earlier had noted they do 70 percent of their business through the drive-through, said they would adjust the speaker down to its lowest level.

Jason Kambitsis, a senior planner with the Department of City Planning, said the legal limit for sound during the day is 55 decibels from the property line. As an example, he said a lawn mower is 85 decibels. He noted there are standards the restaurant has to abide by and if they aren't, such as people are "just talking" over the drive-through speaker, it could become an issue.

Mr. Rice said the drive-through was being changed to be able to get cars through the line quicker. The new design will also accommodate delivery trucks better.

Councilman Kraus said one of the purposes of the meeting was to get public input into the proposed plan. Because they are asking for Special Exceptions to build the new restaurant, the Zoning Board has the opportunity to set conditions such as limiting hours of operation.

In explaining the zoning process, Mr. Kambitsis said sometimes a building such as this project, doesn't fit in with the conditions of the Local Neighborhood Commercial zoning district. It can be just a little different from the conforming use, so the building owner will ask for a change in code to make the building fit.

It's when this happens that the zoning board has the opportunity to set conditions not necessarily related to the building's design.

"I can't do this if we're not open 24-hours," Mr. Rice said. "When you start talking about things that prohibit me from making my money back, I hope that's not a [condition]."

"Nobody is against building a new McDonalds. They are against the noise factor and against the garbage trucks coming in at 1 to 3:30 in the morning," a Suncrest Street resident said.

The city officials pointed out the city has an ordinance prohibiting rubbish collection in the overnight hours. Haulers coming at 1 a.m. or 3:30 a.m. could be cited.

Other neighbors were concerned about the amount of litter generated by patrons of restaurant saying they pick up bags of the trash from blocks away each day.

"McDonalds' trash is getting to be ridiculous," a Mount Oliver resident said.

Mr. Rice was concerned about the safety of his employees going out to pick up litter after dark but offered, "Could we agree to at least once a day to police the area?"

"Could you commit to two blocks in each direction of the new footprint," Mr. Kraus countered.

"I have no problem with that," the restaurant owner replied.

Another neighbor was concerned about the lighting coming from the restaurant's property.

"A guy came and fixed the lights and now it's a problem," she said.

Mr. Kambitsis said the lights are not allowed to spill into the public areas surrounding the property. He offered there are ways the restaurant could shield the lights so the property is still safe but not a nuisance to the neighbors.

Mr. Kraus also wanted a commitment from Mr. Rice the war memorial on the corner of Suncrest and Brownsville Road would remain.

McDonalds' representatives said the sidewalks leading to the war memorial would be improved with the new restaurant.

Mr. Kambitsis said the city has "huge" rights of way around the property and the war memorial sits in right of way. One issue with war memorials in the city is they fall under the purview of the city's Art Commission.

The Suncrest Street resident told the McDonalds' representatives he donates flowers for the memorial and often waters them and would like to see McDonalds step up and help support the care and maintenance of the war memorial.

He also noted local funeral directors sometimes leave flowers at the memorial, but he often cleans up the flowers after they have died.

Mr. Kraus said the city should have some role in making sure the memorial is maintained.

Segueing onto the next topic, the councilman noted his office had been contacted "one too many times" about drug activity in and around the restaurant. He asked Zone 3 Commander Catherine McNeilly if the police were prepared to handle any illegal drug activity in the area.

"We're prepared to do anything it takes," she said.

"I'm confident that this will be an asset to the community," she added. The commander also said she was confident in the law enforcement headway they have been making on the Hilltop in general.

Councilman Kraus asked about reported drug use in the restaurant's restrooms and if McDonalds, as a corporation, has a policy concerning the activity.

"You don't want that in your business," he said.

Mr. Rice, the owner of 16 McDonalds restaurants along with his daughters, explained they have a video surveillance system, inside and out, but aren't permitted to have cameras in the restrooms. He was also concerned about his employees "acting like policemen" with any drug activity.

"I don't have a problem with having a policeman on the weekends," he said. "That's when we have the greatest volume."

Mr. Kraus noted, "Any business is responsible for the activity or at least notifying the police."

Melissa Rice, Mr. Rice's daughter, replied they have called the police on a number of occasions. She said their digital cameras store everything on a hard drive and they are able to access those images going back two or three months.

The new restaurant will have an updated surveillance system with inside and outside cameras, signs notifying patrons about the cameras, additional lighting and loitering will be prohibited.

Before adjourning for the evening, most neighbors attending agreed they want to see the new restaurant in the neighborhood.


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