By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Wellington Webb made a well-timed promise to people living in West Washington Park last May. Just days before the mayoral runoff election in June, the mayor--then neck and neck with challenger Mary DeGroot--committed in writing to help the group fight the construction of a "mega-McDonald's" restaurant on a primarily residential stretch of South Lincoln Street.
Now, as the neighborhood waits for the mayor to put his clout where his mouth is, it's finding out that campaign promises can sometimes disappear as fast as a bag of Chicken McNuggets in a room full of sixth-graders. The problem: Two Webb appointees made some promises of their own--to McDonald's and to the private landowner on whose property the chain wants to build. And they, too, put those promises in writing. As a result, what was a neighborhood squabble has grown into a power struggle pitting a group of angry neighbors against a multinational corporation and one of the city's most powerful political law firms. And Webb is backpedaling as fast as he can in both directions--a move the Hamburglar himself might find difficult.
"Let me be very clear," Webb wrote in a "Dear Neighbor" letter to the neighborhood last May. "I will stand with you and fight for the neighborhood's intentions regarding the location of McDonald's...My record is sound when it comes to fighting for our neighborhoods. And you can be assured that my record will stand up to McDonald's."
But what that letter didn't say was that Webb's transportation director and his city engineer had already signed agreements granting major concessions to the project developers: McDonald's Corporation and landowner Stanley Stein. McDonald's and Stein had envisioned a giant restaurant that would run the entire width of a city block, from a parking lot and entrance on Broadway to a main structure (and another entrance) along Lincoln Street. On the Lincoln side, the mammoth project, complete with a two-story-high "play box" for children, would face rows of modest bungalows, Denver squares and Victorians. It's the sort of ambitious plan that requires cooperation from city regulators. And Webb's people were--at least at first--more than willing to oblige.
The city went along for a simple reason: money. As part of the package, the developers promised to grant the city sixteen feet of property along Alameda Avenue and bear the cost of tearing down an old pet shop the city planned to condemn as part of a street-widening project. The perks offered in return by then-transportation director Dick Brasher and city engineer John Stamm included written commitments to close the alley between Broadway and Lincoln to make room for the parking lot and drive-through lane. The city also guaranteed that the Department of Public Works would accept the site plan--based on preliminary drawings. In addition, Denver officials agreed--over the objections of then-staff engineers Dennis Royer and Ed Ellerbrock--to waive block-widening and left-turn-pocket requirements that the city had demanded of the new Broadway Marketplace retail development not three years before.
All of which makes Sarah St. Cyr, a Lincoln Street resident and chair of the neighborhood association's development and preservation committee, spitting mad. St. Cyr says her group had heard rumors of such signed agreements for months but only got their hands on the documents a few weeks ago. Now she's calling on Webb to honor his campaign promise--or face what she calls "a major credibility problem."
St. Cyr's turn-of-the-century Victorian is directly across the street from the proposed site of the mega-McDonald's (the property currently houses a car wash and an abandoned bank building). "We took him at his word, his written word, that he would support us," St. Cyr says of Webb. "If he's changed his mind, then we need some explanations."
And St. Cyr isn't the only one feeling left out in the cold. According to Stanley Stein's son Randy, who manages the land on which McDonald's wants to build, the city also vowed that it would close the alley without forcing the landowners to endure the formal process of bringing the issue before city council. In a letter of agreement dated August 12, 1993, and signed by Brasher (now executive deputy manager in the city's public works department), the city agreed to close off the alley or come up with a suitable alternative.
Randy Stein says he considered his signed document from Brasher a "contract"--and when McDonald's came knocking in fall 1993, Stein used the letter of agreement as part of his pitch. But when McDonald's approached the city in December 1993, it was rebuffed--and told that the city wouldn't uphold the commitments made in its own agreement. In an angry letter to Stein on December 15, 1993, McDonald's real estate manager Barry T. Cordell wrote of the cold shoulder his firm got from City Hall. "Randy, if the City cannot honor their `Letter of Agreement,' we cannot economically develop a McDonald's restaurant on your Dad's property," concluded Cordell.
Stein's attorney immediately wrote the city and asked what could be done to salvage the arrangement. Negotiations began again, and this time, Stein says, it was Dennis Royer who suggested "relocating" the alley instead of closing it. According to Stein, Royer wanted to "L" the alley out onto Broadway, a move he said would circumvent the need for city council scrutiny.