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.
"Royer made it quite clear that a relocation didn't necessitate a formal hearing," says Stein. "He said the department of transportation does it all the time, calling it a different name to avoid the closure process."
Former city councilwoman Mary DeGroot, who also pledged to fight the McDonald's development when she was running against Webb last year, says she's appalled that a city official would suggest taking a shortcut on an alley closure. "The alley vacation process--bringing it before the city council and having open and public hearings--is the city's only leverage in cases like this," she says. "If McDonald's can finagle a way around it, anyone can. It means the person on the other end of your alley can just decide to close it down without any input from you. If we let one go, within five to ten years all of Lincoln is going to be of that character."
But Dennis Royer claims the Steins are "confused" about the alley closure and says he never suggested bypassing the council. "Our preference is always to do it through the city council method," he says. "Everything is clean and aboveboard. We had numerous meetings with this landowner, and we explained the same thing again and again: He'd have to go through the formal process no matter what they called it. In fact, we had a very ugly meeting a long time back over this very argument."
But if the Steins were confused, so were a number of other people--including Webb's own city attorneys. On February 23, 1994, in the midst of renegotiations over the development, Stein's attorney sent assistant city attorney Karen Aviles a letter attempting to clarify a number of issues that he believed had been resolved. In it, attorney Curtis Henry wrote, "Last, the City will be `closing' the northern portion of the current alley absent formal public vacation proceedings. If I still have not gotten it right, please call and advise."
Aviles responded on March 7 with two minor changes to the agreement, neither of which had anything to do with the alley closure. The negotiations were concluded on March 24, 1994, when city engineer Stamm signed a three-page predevelopment agreement with the Steins. Among other things, that agreement called for the alley between Lincoln and Broadway to "be closed and rerouted onto Broadway." And Stamm--despite Royer's insistence that the city always prefers to route alley closures through the city council--defends both the existence and the legality of that offer. "It's an unofficial [closure], just closing the alley and trying to make the project work," he says. "There was never an intent [to take it before city council]."
Aviles's memory, though, has apparently grown a bit hazy on the question of whether she approved closing the alley without a public vote. "I'm pretty sure I've never put anything in writing on that," she says when reached at her office. "So I can't remember if I opined or not."
In the meantime, Royer says that yet another lawyer in the city attorney's office, George Cerrone, has since ruled that the predevelopment agreement signed by Stamm--and reviewed by Aviles--"isn't binding." Cerrone declined to comment when contacted by Westword, and the mayor's office now has only one thing to say about the alley closing.
"It ain't gonna happen," says Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson. "It's just not."
Six days before Christmas, Webb made an attempt to sort out the tangle his administration had created. Caught between a neighborhood digging in its heels, the Steins threatening suit and McDonald's--which has hired the politically connected law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland to represent it in the matter--the mayor called a meeting in his city hall office. In attendance were West Washington Park residents, Broadway Terrace business owners and the city council members and state legislators who represent the area. Webb's message was clear: He wasn't promising anything to anyone. At least not anymore.
"Now, Sarah, wait," Webb responded to an opening statement by St. Cyr in which she pleaded with him to keep his campaign promise. "When I spoke to you, the issue was the location of the entrance of the restaurant, not whether there was going to be a restaurant."
"I said I'd help you fight on location, not to keep McDonald's out altogether."
"We want to prove to the city that you really are neighborhood-friendly," St. Cyr said, ignoring Webb's implication that the neighborhood has switched its position. "We want you to live up to your promise that you'll fight."
"But now you tell me that you don't want McDonald's at all."
"McDonald's hasn't shown much willingness to work with us," interjected state representative Wayne Knox, a vocal opponent of the project.
"They haven't been in a very negotiating mood," echoed St. Cyr. "Why didn't McDonald's participate in the Broadway Marketplace if they're so keen on coming into the neighborhood?"
Webb shook his head. "But that wasn't your position before..." he repeated.
"If you can stop a coliseum fight, you can stop anything," St. Cyr said, referring to Webb's recent high-profile campaign against the "Ultimate Fighting" championships.
The exchange about the neighborhood's alleged change of position, if lively, was largely moot. Despite Webb's insistence that the neighbors have waffled, letters from a handful of neighborhood groups dating back two years show that the neighborhood has always opposed locating the McDonald's on Lincoln. "It's ridiculous," says St. Cyr. "We've always objected to three things: the two- or three-story glassed-in play box; the drive-through; and the placement of the restaurant on Lincoln. They've never offered to change any of that."
Most of the neighbors say they can live with a restaurant that borders on Broadway and ends at the alley. McDonald's and its supporters within the city, however, favor a whopper of an eatery that would run the full width of a city block, allowing motorists to enter on Broadway, Lincoln or Alameda. The restaurant would also feature a "play box" for children, a 22-foot-high module that would function as a sort of super jungle gym. Webb, meanwhile, is sandwiched between the two, desperate to facilitate a compromise.
But even before the contentious December meeting, chances for a negotiated settlement had grown slim. In early November the neighborhood decided to take matters into its own hands and filed a down-zoning petition with the city. That measure, if successful, would make it impossible for McDonald's or any other fast-food chain to put even the tiniest restaurant on the site. Needless to say, the Steins are outraged. "That's my father's retirement," says Randy.
The down-zoning petition is now at the city zoning office, which will study it and then make a recommendation to the city council. The council normally votes on zoning applications within sixty days of their filing. But the council has yet to even see West Washington Park's application. The city zoning office has taken no action on the filing; zoning administrator Dorothy Nepa failed to return repeated calls from Westword.
The city's stalling isn't making the neighborhood group any easier to deal with. When Webb proposed toward the end of the December meeting that selected members of the group stick around for a roundtable meeting with the Steins, Brownstein Hyatt attorney Cole Finegan and the prospective McDonald's franchise operators (Geta and Janice Asfaw, who now run the McDonald's at Sixth Avenue and Broadway), the neighbors refused to take part unless all 25 of them could sit in on the session.
"We'll all meet with them," St. Cyr declared.
"You can't all meet with them," answered Webb.
St. Cyr shrugged. "Then we won't meet."
At the ensuing meeting with the development group--at which several chairs were noticeably empty--Webb presented the neighborhood's position. He told Finegan and the others that "McDonald's hasn't been compromising enough." And he passed along St. Cyr's claim that McDonald's has plans to force more mega-McDonald's down the throat of other neighborhoods after it finishes with hers. But he didn't appear to get any concessions.
Finegan, smooth and unruffled, did the talking for the development group. The centerpiece of his presentation was an artist's rendition of the McDonald's, redesigned in what he said was an attempt to address the neighbors' concerns. The drawing shows a red-brick McDonald's complete with elegant landscaping, a bright-blue sky and children on bicycles. It's an improvement over the glass-box design of most play-box McDonald's. But the elements the neighborhood objects to--the multi-story height of the play pod, the drive-through lane and the placement on Lincoln--are all still there.
Webb, however, was impressed, and seemed to believe the new design might provide a window of opportunity for renewed negotiations.
"Tina," he said to aide Tina Scardina, recently appointed director of the office of neighborhood response, "get Sarah [St. Cyr] on the phone right now and have her round up a community meeting. Let's get these folks together."
When Brasher pointed out that the neighborhood's concerns about the project spilling over the alley hadn't been addressed, Finegan's smoothness took on an edge. "Mr. Mayor," Finegan said, "it would cost McDonald's an extra $150,000 to put the building on Broadway, because we'd have to move the utilities. We've made numerous concessions--the decorative wall, the doubled landscaping."
A member of the mayor's staff interjected with an observation that apparently had gone unnoticed: "You know, once there's a first reading of the neighborhood's down-zoning petition at city council, there's a hold on all permits." (Actually, according to staffers in the office of council zoning-committee chair Polly Flobek, that hold on building permits went into effect as soon as the neighborhood's zoning application was filed, meaning that the entire development is effectively frozen.)
Finegan appeared particularly miffed at the prospect that the neighborhood's action could erect a whole new set of bureaucratic hoops for his clients to jump through. "Mr. Mayor, we have been at this since June of 1993," he said. "There's about a quarter of a million dollars invested."
The mayor responded simply: "Tina!"
As Webb struggles to patch together a compromise, all of the parties to the controversy are crying foul. Randy Stein says he and his father are victims. "We're not really sophisticated developers," says Stein. "My dad's a retired pharmacist. He bought this property years ago..." Stein trails off. "Now I'm getting hate mail. You know. And faxes."
And Stein doesn't think the city is the only villain. "I find it a little bit funny that the neighbors are making a big deal now that the mayor isn't honoring his promise," he says. "It's not like this neighborhood supported Webb. I find it a little hard to swallow their righteous indignation that the mayor isn't supporting campaign promises when they didn't support him anyway."
St. Cyr is equally bitter. The Steins, she claims, "have been ruthless. They've threatened us that they'll put a porn-video store there. It's disgusting."
Stein says the only mention he ever made of a pornographic-video store came after he received a letter from an angry neighbor who happened to be a real estate agent. "I wrote her back and said, `You should know better,'" he says. "The B-4 zoning on this property gives us a legal right to put everything from tattoo parlors to porno movie houses on the land. I just quoted the B-4 zoning."
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But Stein's background may make a mere quote from him slightly intimidating. Stanley Stein, Randy's father, originally purchased the property at Lincoln and Alameda with money he made from the sale of another piece of land to the owner of a pornographic-video store.
Tina Scardina, meanwhile, hasn't been able to convince St. Cyr's group to look at McDonald's latest design. "Is there still a drive-through?" St. Cyr asks rhetorically when questioned about the issue. "Is there still a playland? Is it still on Lincoln? Forget it."
Even Dennis Royer agrees that the developer's new plans, officially filed with his office on January 2, haven't changed much. "They're pretty similar to what [McDonald's] has submitted all along," he says. "We unrolled them quickly to see if there were any real differences. There weren't."
McDonald's spokeswoman Jodi Holloway has little to say about the tiff, except to note that McDonald's is a good corporate citizen that has been working with the neighborhood all along--a contention with which both Randy Stein and Sarah St. Cyr disagree. With their triple lines drawn in the sand, Stein, St. Cyr and McDonald's are now mired in a legal standoff. Since both the neighborhood's zoning petition and the alley closure are now headed for the city council, Webb will shortly have to relinquish control of the issue altogether--freeing him from the awkward task of having to choose sides. That's the kind of political break he could use--deserving or not.