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Does West Baltimore really need another fast-food restaurant? Nah. | COMMENTARY

Opponents of a proposed fast-food drive-thru in West Baltimore huddle across from the corner lot, presently the site of a car repair shop, that would become the restaurant.
Opponents of a proposed fast-food drive-thru in West Baltimore huddle across from the corner lot, presently the site of a car repair shop, that would become the restaurant. (Baltimore Sun staff)

Does Baltimore — specifically, West Baltimore — need another fast-food restaurant? Is this the best idea the owner of the corner lot at Tioga Parkway and Gwynns Falls Parkway can come up with? A Checkers with a drive-thru window? It’s not only boring, the neighbors hate the idea.

I’ve met several of them. In fact, the issue drew quite a crowd on Monday afternoon.

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We gathered on Tioga Parkway’s wide median strip, just west of Mondawmin Mall and across from the north end of Coppin State University.

Sharon Watts was the first one there; she’s lived nearby her whole life, in the Panway-Braddish neighborhood. Then Keith Pennick arrived; he’s president of the Hanlon Improvement Association, also nearby. William Patrick came; he lives on Gwynns Falls with his wife, Doristine. And Mary Nowlin walked across the street from her house, the one that will be most affected if the car repair shop on the corner becomes another fast-food restaurant West Baltimore doesn’t need.

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But I asked the gathering, as more people arrive, this question: Is a fast-food place worse than a car repair shop?

And the answer came back: yes, definitely.

First of all, everyone is familiar with the car shop.

“It’s been there, oh … " said Olivia Bannister, who grew up on Tioga and still lives in one of its attached brick homes.

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“As long as you can remember?” I asked.

“Yes, as long as I can remember,” she said.

The car shop operates from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; it’s closed Sundays. If typical, a fast-food restaurant will have longer hours, be open seven days a week and draw more traffic than the repair shop does now. And traffic is one of the reasons residents are opposed to having a Checkers on the corner.

“It’s going to be a huge headache,” says Nowlin.

The intersection of Gwynns Falls and Tioga is a busy one, and neighbors say there have been numerous accidents. Nowlin, who works nearby, no longer walks to her job; she doesn’t feel safe on foot. “I call an Uber or I get someone to take me,” she says.

Eli Pousson, program coordinator with the Neighborhood Design Center, looked at Maryland State Police data on traffic accidents that occurred within 300 meters of the intersection over the last five years. He found 303 crashes — 51 of them within 20 meters of the intersection. Five of them resulted in serious injuries; one accident resulted in a fatality, according to Pousson’s analysis.

“This is definitely one of the more dangerous intersections in the area,” he says, “and I can understand why neighbors are concerned about adding a drive-thru at that corner.”

There are other reasons residents are upset with the decision of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals to allow the drive-thru Checkers — conditioned, according to city records, on approval of the planning and transportation departments.

Three reasons: racial equity, health and trash.

The homeowners I met are all Black, many of them middle-aged or just beyond. Several of them grew up near Mondawmin, went to the elementary school there, then Frederick Douglass High School, and some attended Coppin. They care about their neighborhoods. The main road through them, Gwynns Falls, was part of the historic Olmsted plan for miles of tree-lined parkways and parks throughout Baltimore. The last thing residents want is a fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru that will probably generate more trash. They say such a thing in such a place, on the edge of a residential neighborhood, would not be allowed in white Baltimore.

Lawrence Bell, once president of the City Council, joined us on the median strip. He’s amazed that, with every community association in the area opposed, the proposal survived the zoning board. “It seems that Black citizens in West and East Baltimore are treated very differently these days than white residents in Roland Park and Charles Village and Mount Vernon and Canton,” Bell and Pennick wrote in a letter to the board last month.

“Black neighborhoods matter,” said Mary Hughes of the Panway Neighborhood Improvement Association, pointing to health reasons for opposing more fast-food chains in her community. Besides, she and others note, Mondawmin Mall has several places to eat, including a Burger King and Popeyes.

“Children don’t need more fast food,” said Watts. “They need healthy food.”

A typical Checkers offers juicy hamburgers and fried wings. It is what it is. You can’t get a cauliflower pizza there, nor a black bean and sweet potato taco.

Documents with the zoning board list the owner of the corner lot as having an address in Howard County. I contacted the attorney representing the owner and Checkers, but never heard back.

The opponents, on the other hand, are quite vocal. By the time we wrapped up the discussion on the median strip, there were at least 12 of them there, including 34-year-old Nabeehah Azeez, who bought a house on Tioga about a year ago. She opposes the Checkers — “I think it’s a terrible idea” — and would rather see a pharmacy or hardware store on the corner.

If it’s to be a restaurant, how about something other than a fast-food drive-thru? How about an independent, locally owned restaurant offering healthier fare, a place where, after the pandemic, people can gather and sit and talk, a place for the community — you know, a place the community won’t hate.

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