The New Yorker; 25 March 1996

IT'S twelve-thirty on a Friday after noon lunchtime in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Two Department of Transportation dump trucks are standing under thc light at Third Avenue and Adantic, waiting to make an illegal left turn (and who's to stop them?). A bus, several cars, and another truck are lined up behind them, honking. Depending on whether you're Marsha Meyers, proud resident of the ExLax Building, down the street, or an executive of McDonald's, which proposes to build a twenty-four-hour drive- through restaurant here, traffic is either a nightmare or a bonanza.

"Right now, we are in gridlock!" Meyers shouts. A tiny redhead wearing a faux tiger-skin jacket, she might be referring to traffic or to the battle at hand. Late last year, lawyers for McDonald's went before the Board of Standards and Appeals to request a variance from the Special Atlantic Avenue District zoning regulations. Among other things, McDonald's wants curb cuts on Atlantic and Pacific, so that the golden arches might span the continent in the space of a single block. Local residents, led by Joseph Mohbat, a lawyer, are trying to block the variance, on the ground that theirs is a distinctly urban neighborhood, in which a suburban-style drive-through would be out of character.

"The neighborhood is a gem, but it has an image problem," Meyers says. "It is not viewed as residential." In fact, just off Atlantic Avenue are some thirty-five blocks of restored Civil War-era houses: Italianate, Greek Revival, early Victorian. On Atlantic itself, which is zoned commercial, merchants, some of whom live above their storefronts, conform to what Meyers calls "the Atlantic Avenue aesthetic." Meyers's building has a pale-aqua entranceway and a vaulted marble lobby so grand as to be almost ecclesiastical. (Meyers insists that in Boerum Hill, at least, Ex-Lax has lost all connotations of "the Chocolated Laxative.")

"This is what showed me that their heart is not in the right place," she says. "I know there are customized McDonald's. I understand there's a McDonald's in New Orleans that's wonderful-looking. If they wanted to take on a look that would be like the Victorian storefronts. But they wouldn't even come in without the drive-through."

Taking a new tactic, members of the Boerum Hill Association looked into city records as far back as 1912, when there was a stable on the property, and found that subsequently the stable was converted into a garage. They found records of gas pumps and grease pits and underground storage tanks for gas and oil. They found no evidence, however, that such tanks were ever removed, so they informed the Board of Standards and Appeals that the property might be contaminated.

The residents of Boerum Hill know they are fighting an uphill battle. Every thing they do to discourage the burger giant seems to make it drool the more. The McDonald's people are not even fazed by the possible presence of underground tanks. Perhaps to them it seems only natural that a McDonald's should spring up on the site of a former grease pit.

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