McDonald's is upgrading its restaurants around the country, including those in Harford County, but plans to refurbish the nearly 40-year-old establishment at the southwest corner of Route 1 (Baltimore Pike) and Route 24 in Bel Air have hit a snag.
Members of the Bel Air Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday to table a vote to approve or disapprove plans, as commission members sought greater aesthetic improvements.
"Knowing the importance of that corner it doesn't have to look so much [like] a warehouse," commission member Lois Kelly said.
Lee May, McDonald's USA's area construction manager for the Baltimore-Washington region, said the existing restaurant was built in 1974.
"We have wanted to rebuild or do something with this restaurant for many years," he said. "We've looked at every option possible."
The restaurant, its parking areas and drive-through lane are on a corner lot of the Bel Air Plaza shopping center property.
The project is beset by design challenges, including a "very irregularly-shaped lot," which slopes up toward the intersection, and a building which faces two major highways, May explained. There is, however, no access to Route 24, which is a limited access highway, only to Route 1.
The plans presented Thursday show a brick restaurant exterior with stone facades on select portions.
"We will always do our best to really match the colors and the style of the area," architect Sarah Wexler of The Chesapeake Design Group Architects Inc. of Baltimore, told the commission members.
Wexler stressed the McDonald's corporation provides a design "kit," which architects and engineers must adhere to.
Under the existing setup, McDonald's patrons can access the drive-through by coming off Route 1 down the slight hill, crossing an access drive shared with Bel Air Plaza – with stop signs in three directions – and then looping to the right to place an order, pay at a standalone booth and then pick up their food and drink at a window facing the Mars supermarket.
"We've all witnessed drive-through queues stacking out into the primary access drive of the shopping center," May said.
The site plan presented to the planning commission shows the drive-through lane skirting the shared access road and looping around the rear of the restaurant facing Route 1, then taking drivers to the pickup window along the Route 24 side.
The lane also splits briefly and allows patrons to access two order units.
"Technically, it's still a single-lane drive-through, but we've split the order functions," May said.
Planning commission members expressed concerns about making the rear and drive-through pickup area more visually appealing to drivers on the adjoining highway, as well as the best way to conceal the restaurant's trash receptacles in such a visible location.
May, Wexler and engineer Valek Zarski, project manager with the Baltimore Land Design Group Inc. of Hunt Valley, talked about how the exterior could be improved.
They mentioned the trash and recycling bins are stored in a "trash corral," an 8-foot-high enclosure.
"Still, it's a Dumpster on Route1 versus a Dumpster somewhere else... It's the nature of the beast, but again, it's the corner lot," commission member Donald Coates said.
Commission Chairman Phil Raub also said "we want to get to where the rear of the building doesn't look like the rear of a building."
May, Wexler and Zarski agreed to bring revised plans to the commission.
Commission member Keith Powell stressed the restaurant has been at its location for nearly 40 years, and "we're going to look at it for another 40."
"I don't think anybody here wants to say 'No,' it's just an important thing," Powell explained.