Will city limit drive-thrus? Maybe.

St. Paul considers banning drive-thrus for restaurants and coffee shops, but not pharmacies and banks in some areas


St. Paul could become the latest city to limit new drive-thru sales and services if a proposal is adopted this summer. The St. Paul Planning Commission held a public hearing on the issue June 7, 2024, and will make a recommendation to the city council in June or July.
If the regulations are adopted by the council, St. Paul would join other cities, including Minneapolis, in such restrictions. While some cities have adopted outright bans on drive-thru services and St. Paul could do the same, planners have also suggested taking a more nuanced approach, focusing more on restaurants and coffee shops and less on banks and pharmacies.
City planner Bill Dermody told the commission earlier this spring that drive-thru sales and services can negatively impact walkability and active streetscapes. That is seen as being in conflict with the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan goals and policies for pedestrian-friendly environments along city streets.
Drive-thru services are typically found at fast-food restaurants, coffee shops, banks and pharmacies. A planning commission study found that St. Paul has about 77 businesses with drive-thrus, including 36 restaurants, two coffee shops, 31 banks, and eight pharmacies.
That’s out of a total of 640 restaurants, 51 coffee shops, 40 banks and 17 pharmacies in the city.
But the city staff report notes that demand for drive-thru services may be growing, as some suburban grocery stores and big-box retailers are experimenting with drive-thrus. If that is successful, such a trend could spread. The COVID-19 pandemic also prompted a surge in demand for drive-thrus nationwide.
Since March 2020, St. Paul city officials have approved site plans and/or conditional use permits for three new drive-thrus, for two banks and a coffee shop. Also approved were at least five drive thru reconstructions or redesigns, all for fast food restaurants.
Midway area residents know all too well what challenges drive-thu services can create. The Taco Bell on North Snelling Avenue has drawn complaints for years about backed-up traffic from its drive-thru window. The owners lost a bid to rebuild the restaurant several years ago, and had to take the city to court to get approval for a new restaurant.
Then there was a certain coffee spot. During his presentation to the commission, Dermody drew chuckles when he brought up the infamous Starbucks drive-thru that was at Snelling and Marshall avenues.
The coffee shop, which won city approvals in 2015, was quickly nicknamed “Carbucks” because of the traffic jams it caused. City and Starbucks corporate officials worked for years to find a solution. But putting police officers outside to direct rush hour traffic prompted complaints from workers. The drive-thru was closed in 2021 and a patio added.
Motor vehicle off-site queuing that blocks sidewalks, bike lanes, or traffic lanes was cited as a reason to restrict drive-thru services. Exhaust from idling vehicles, noise and challenges with pedestrian access in reaching a business were also cited.
Some cities have banned new drive-thru services outright. St. Paul officials have suggested one approach, with new drive-thru services banned in some parts of the city and still allowed in others.
Existing drive-thru services would be grandfathered in. A staff report also notes that: “Banks and pharmacies provide valued services to Saint Paul residents in addition to employment and tax base benefits. Also, notably, pharmacies play an important role in public health.”
The proposed regulations focus more on specific areas and specific types of businesses
New drive-thru services would be banned in the downtown central business district. In areas zoned for traditional neighborhoods use, including several arterial streets, drive-thrus would be limited to banks and pharmacies. These land uses are seen as more necessary than fast-food restaurants and coffee shops, and having fewer negative impacts. Also, restaurants and coffee shops can more easily offer curbside pickup.
Design requirements are also proposed, with additional motor vehicle waiting or “stacking” spaces shops and design of businesses’ pedestrian access in a way that shields pedestrians from crossing a drive-thru lane on foot or with a mobility device.
The planning commission will also be asked to prohibit drive-thru lanes and their driveway access points in traditional neighborhoods district within 300 feet of transitway stations. Transitways include light rail, bus rapid transit, arterial bus rapid transit and modern streetcar, but not regular route bus lines.
While drive-thru traffic can pose hazards to people crossing them on foot or with mobility devices, using a drive-thru service is a way many people with disabilities get their medicine, do their banking and get their food. Restrictions typically raise red flags and calls for compromise.
The St. Paul Mayor’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities and the Minnesota Council on Disability have not weighed in on the proposal.
Go to https://www.stpaul.gov/departments/planning-and-economic-development/planning/current-activities and look for the zoning study. The city has posted a specific set of questions to be answered, and also gives information on how to submit written or in-person testimony. Comments for the planning commission have closed but community members will still be able to comment on the proposal when it goes to city council.


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