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How will Big Macs blend into Ybor City?

The chain's plan for a drive-through restaurant has some worried that it won't fit the style of the historic neighborhood.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 26, 2002


Miami had McCubans.

Boston tried McLobster Rolls.

Will Ybor City get McRice and Beans?

"It's pretty unlikely," said Lisa Howard, a spokeswoman for the burger empire.

McDonald's is eyeing a site off Interstate 4 for its first restaurant in Tampa's historic district. The design could reflect Ybor's Latin roots, but the menu probably won't.

"When customers come to McDonald's, they like the consistency of the menu," Howard said.

The world's largest fast-food chain has a proposal before Ybor's architectural review board to build a store on 13th Avenue and 21st Street, across from rival Burger King.

McDonald's would demolish the old Hardee's, which closed in March 2001 because of poor sales.

Many local leaders welcome the addition, provided it blends with the historic neighborhood. Bring on the Big Mac, they say. Tourists and locals demand it.

"A lot of our visitors happen upon us. They don't plan to come here, they just see the signs," said Annette DeLisle, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. "We want to be competitive with other places that have Burger King and McDonald's."

The Barrio Latino Commission will review the plan Tuesday during a public hearing. McDonald's needs approval of the design and permission for the drive-through window. As with any project with a drive-through in Tampa, the City Council has the final say.

The drive-through request marks the first in years for Ybor, said Del Acosta, Tampa's historic preservation administrator. The area has plenty of chain stores (Subway is opening on 17th Street near Bernini restaurant), but only a couple of drive-throughs.

"Our primary concern will be the appearance," he said. "The issue is not whether it's a chain or not. The issue is the drive-through."

Acosta said the McDonald's must meld with Ybor's architecture and meet the historic guidelines. He foresees a plain, brick building with a flat roof, possibly tin, and easy access for customers walking in from the street.

"I think there's a way of doing a drive-through that still satisfies the historic district," he said. "There are historic McDonald's (restaurants) all over the place."

Other people aren't so sure.

Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta newspaper based in Ybor City, said cookie-cutter drive-throughs have little place in a historic district. They rely too heavily on cars and stand out like a burger at Chick-fil-A.

He points to the traditional Burger King across the street, which opened before Ybor adopted design guidelines.

"(McDonald's) wants it for the interstate traffic," he said. "They don't want it for Ybor City."

Company officials said they couldn't comment on any new restaurant plans. However, they said they often tweak building designs to accommodate communities. Routinely, they test different menu items and incorporate the big sellers.

The chain has 30,000 outlets in 121 countries.

Vince Pardo, president of the Ybor City Development Corp., said he prefers an urban design, not a suburban one. Instead of putting the building in the center of a circular drive, he wants it up against the street.

"Yes, it's off the interstate, but it's the gateway to Ybor. It's the first impression that people get," he said.

Pardo remains hopeful McDonald's will come up with a design that doesn't clash with the community. His feeling: If Rome has one next to the Spanish Steps, then why shouldn't Tampa have one in Ybor?

"I think it's a challenge, but I think they will be able to satisfy the requirements," he said. "McDonald's are throughout Europe and they blend in quite well."

As for the menu, Pardo has no objection to the traditional fare of burgers, fries and shakes. In Ybor, he doesn't have to go far for a good plate of rice and beans.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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