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Fast-Food Plan Leaves Bad Taste : Land use: Merchants and residents protest proposal that would place eatery in quaint, tree-lined Village.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is this quiet college town threatened with a Big Mac Attack? Could it become the home of the Whopper? Are the Taco Bells tolling for Claremont?

The possibility that something as commonplace and garish as a Burger King or a Del Taco might spring up at an entrance to the city’s downtown business district, the Village, has stirred merchants and residents to protest.

One flyer posted in store windows warns that Claremont is about to become “Fast Food City.” Hundreds of people have signed petitions demanding the City Council abandon the idea of allowing a fast-food restaurant at Bonita Avenue and Indian Hill Boulevard. The publisher of the local newspaper has denounced the proposal as “a bum idea.”

Nangy Ghafarshad, owner of Walter’s restaurant, a dining mainstay in the Village for nearly 33 years, said, “I definitely see it as a harmful thing.” Ghafarshad said he isn’t worried about losing business to a fast-food competitor, although he fears other local eateries might be hurt. Instead, he said, his main concern is that the ambience of the Village would be tarnished.

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With its restaurants and shops almost entirely locally owned and operated, the Village offers goods and services that aren’t found in the typical shopping center or mini-mall. “We’re different than any other place,” Ghafarshad said. “That’s why we’re doing wonderful.”

Paul Jaeckel, a sales representative who lives near the Village, said Claremont is “like a Midwestern town.” Where else, he asks, can you run a tab for your groceries or have your prescriptions delivered by a druggist on a bicycle?

Jaeckel said that when he comes home after a day of work in the heat and smog, a walk through the tree-lined Village is the perfect tonic. But put in a Jack in the Box, Jaeckel said, and the Village would seem “run-of-the mill.”

Mayor Nicholas L. Presecan said he’s amazed at all the fuss. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling,” he said. “I think people are overplaying this emotionally.”

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The controversy was triggered by a redevelopment staff recommendation last month that the City Council consider national fast-food chains among the potential users of part of a vacant lot that stretches along the north side of Bonita Avenue between Indian Hill Boulevard and Yale Avenue.

The redevelopment agency owns the lot, about three-quarters of an acre, which over the years has been occupied by two gas stations, a photo studio and a key shop. It is now for unpaved parking.

At least four fast-food operators have expressed an interest in having a franchise facing Indian Hill, even if they have to design buildings that fit the area, rather than use their standard models, and even if they cannot have drive-through lanes, which are banned in Claremont.

Redevelopment officials so far have spent $750,000 on the project, including the cost of buying and clearing the land. An economic study indicated a fast-food user would pay the most for the site and produce a comparatively high amount of sales tax, about $10,000 a year. That is three to five times the revenue that a gift or clothing store would be expected to produce.

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While a fast-food restaurant might occupy the west end of the property, various two-story retail and office uses, plus parking, would fill the remainder.

Although Claremont has some fast-food franchises, including a Green Burrito and Kentucky Fried Chicken, none are in the Village. City Manager Glenn D. Southard said whenever city officials talk to high school students, the first or second question from the students is always, “When are we going to have some fast-food restaurants?”

Southard said the City Council so far has simply indicated it would be willing to consider a limited-menu restaurant on part of the site.

Presecan said one concern is financial. If the choice is a fast-food restaurant that would produce $10,000 a year or a business that would be “neat and pretty to look at” but would generate only $3,000, he said, “I’d be stupid to take the $3,000.”

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Presecan said residents have made it clear they don’t want higher taxes, so the city is trying to generate revenue through business growth. Besides, he said, fast-food franchises are often locally owned and those business owners deserve as much consideration as anyone else.

Not all Village business owners are opposed to a fast-food outlet. Doug McGoon, who owns a store called the Candy Bar, said one of the charms of the Village is that it has evolved in an interesting, haphazard way over the years. “It’s an eclectic mess that works well together,” McGoon said.

Adding a fast-food chain to the mix, he said, might complement the Village. “We can’t be a 1930s or ‘40s village forever, and we shouldn’t try to be,” he said.

Martin Weinberger, editor and publisher of the Claremont Courier, said his columns editorializing against the fast-food proposal have produced many letters of support and only one in opposition, from a writer who complained that keeping out fast-food franchises was “elitist.”

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“It is elitist and snobbish,” conceded Fred Demke, owner of the Some Crust Bakery and one of the petition organizers. But, Demke said, it’s the only way to protect the Village.

Small local restaurants would have trouble competing with a national chain and its heavy advertising, Demke said. But Presecan said he doubts someone headed for a Village cafe would be sidetracked into a McDonald’s.

The more likely scenario, Presecan said, is that a Claremont fast-food restaurant would draw customers who now go to fast-food outlets in neighboring cities. And those customers, he said, might wander into other Village stores and spend money, bolstering the economy.

But Demke said the Village is a “mix of places and what they offer. You can’t explain it and it’s hard to say how to (improve) it, but you sure can wreck it.”

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