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30/04/02 . by John Barber . The Globe and Mail . Toronto, CANADA
The quixotic fight against drive-throughs
Jose Bove may be going to jail, sentenced for the landmark crime of bulldozing a McDonald's restaurant in southern France, but the company's worries are far from over. Now it has the Humewood Neighbourhood Committee to reckon with.
Its members are the furthest thing from criminals, but they are just as fanatical as Mr. Bove -- and there are a lot more of them.
Their quixotic campaign to prevent McDonald's from building a drive-through restaurant on the north side of St. Clair Avenue, just west of Christie Street, has rung bells across the city.
Their protests have played on the front pages and City Hall is storming to their rescue. But most of the bells are ringing in the neighbourhood itself.
"It has really galvanized the community," said Stephen Scharper, one of the Humewooders who descended on City Hall yesterday to demand a halt to the proliferation of drive-throughs in the inner city. "This has been a real community-building moment for us."
They came up with a nifty slogan spontaneously at a public meeting ("We're a live-in community, not a drive-thru") and have posted a Web site (http://www.welivehere.ca) of a quality that McDonald's couldn't buy for any amount of money.
The protest has also exposed a loophole in planning regulations that allowed drive-throughs throughout the inner city "as of right." The former city of Toronto never thought to regulate the phenomenon.
"This is the suburbanization of downtown," local city councillor Joe Mihevc complained. He has promised "to fight it tooth and nail."
The former suburban municipalities have scads of drive-throughs, of course. The latest trend is for complex setups that weave customers through tricky interchanges to a choice of as many as three different restaurants.
But city officials appear to have decided against their usual practice of "harmonizing" the rules by forcing downtowners to accept the suburban standards.
A new planning report agrees with many of the Humewooders' complaints that drive-throughs endanger pedestrians, create traffic congestion and destroy traditional streetscapes.
Earlier this year, the city passed an interim control bylaw to prevent the creation of any more drive-through windows until it has decided how to regulate them properly.
Perhaps learning from its experience dealing with pioneer burger-haters, McDonald's is fighting back vigorously, first by challenging the bylaw in court.
Seasoned observers expect it will win: You can pre-empt development with an interim control bylaw, they say, but you can't derail it.
Even if the Humewooders lose their own battle, however, they will have heroically blackened the eye of the burger clown and saved dozens of other inner-city neighbourhoods from the same fate.
Rhona Swarbrick of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee doesn't make as much noise, and she never gets any press, but she is always there -- and making a difference -- whenever anybody tries to improve life on the sidewalks of the city.
She was there yesterday, too, not only to support the Humewood committee but also to introduce her committee's landmark Toronto Pedestrian Charter to City Hall.
Ms. Swarbrick and Janice Etter, two Etobicokans, spent a year researching and consulting before they drew up this inspiring one-page document, a kind of Bill of Rights for walkers, that city council will be asked to adopt at its next meeting.
The charter "is a powerful, well-organized, pace-setting document," according to Barry Wellar of the University of Ottawa, an expert in the field. Prof. Wellar added that "it could become regarded as the model statement for other cities that are trying to become more livable, sustainable urban regions."
Adopting the pedestrian charter won't turn a car-mad city around tomorrow, but it should help restore official resolve after the amalgamation disaster.
"We are all pedestrians," Ms. Swarbrick said, adding that suburban groups angry at needless deaths on high-speed arterials are "snapping up" her charter.
As usual, it is ordinary citizen volunteers who are making the difference.