Planning commission opposes swapping Jack in the Box for Starbucks drive-thru

The Jack in the Box in Cardiff.
(Karen Billing)

At its November meetings, the Encinitas Planning Commission determined that they would not support a conversion of the Cardiff Jack in the Box into a drive-thru Starbucks.

The Jack in the Box at the corner of San Elijo Avenue and Birmingham Drive is considered a nonconforming use as drive-thrus are not allowed in the Cardiff-By-The-Sea Specific Plan. The fast food restaurant has operated legally in the space since 1969, approved under county zoning 17 years before Encinitas became a city.

The City of Encinitas Municipal Code prohibits nonconforming uses from being expanded, enlarged or enhanced in any other manner to increase its inconsistency with municipal code regulations or the Cardiff-by-the-Sea Specific Plan.

The commission found that to switch from a Jack in the Box to a Starbucks would have a much greater intensity of the site’s nonconformance due to the increased queuing for coffee—a staff report stated that the traffic intensity would be almost double if the change was made.

“Everything about this is very concerning,” said Commissioner Susan Sherod. “This would be a definite intensification of use, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

“The specific plan has made it clear that Cardiff would rather not have drive-thrus,” affirmed Commissioner Steve Dalton.

A rendering of a potential Starbucks (no project has been submitted).
(Karen Billing)

The commission voted 4-1 in favor of the interpretation on Nov. 4, with Commissioner Chris Ryan opposed. The action was not necessarily a project approval or denial as there is no development proposed at this time—the action was an interpretation that can be applied to other situations, showing how the commission interprets the code and nonconformance law.

On Nov. 18, the commission approved a revised resolution that simplified its Nov. 4 findings in the event that the issue lands in front of Encinitas City Council or court.

Jack in the Box and CalBay Development have been working with the city for two years to determine what would be acceptable modifications for the site.

Cindy Eldridge, representing Jack in the Box, said from their perspective a Starbucks would be a legal nonconforming use and they don’t agree with city staff that’s it a conversion of use or that the city should consider intensification of use: “It’s not a change of use, it’s the same use.”

A potential Starbucks would temporarily close the Birmingham Drive access with bollards and make improvements to the building’s façade with painting, signage and other rebranding. The parking lot would also be reconfigured to increase the number of spaces.

Ryan Shea, of CalBay Development, said that city staff never engaged meaningfully on potential solutions and seemed to create a separate set of rules because the proposed use was a Starbucks instead of looking at the code. He said they are willing to work with staff to update and refresh the business to make it function as best it can in its existing size. If the drive-thru is taken away, Shea said there would be a loss in value of over 50%.

Barry Schultz, assistant city attorney, said that in contrast to other conversions that have gone through the city process (KFC to Starbucks, Del Taco to In-N-Out) the specific plan in Cardiff does not allow drive-thrus.

“When looking at legal nonconforming use law, there is a contemplation that there will be the eventual elimination of such use,” Schultz said.

He said any changes to the drive-thru only add to the permanency of that use and it is the city’s position that making improvements to increase the efficiency of getting cars through the queue is changing the character of the use.

The commission also received public comments from residents in opposition to the Starbucks due to the potential impacts of spillover traffic on the busy Birmingham Drive and San Elijo Avenue intersection. They cited conflicts with nearby Cardiff Elementary School, commuter traffic to the freeway as well as the potential impact to emergency vehicle access on Birmingham.

The Cardiff 101 Mainstreet’s Design Committee submitted a letter “vehemently” opposed to the Starbucks drive-thru.

“Since the time that the Jack in the Box was developed, Cardiff has become a much more densely developed walkable community where drive-thru operations are clearly inappropriate,” the letter stated.

With her vote in opposition, Ryan said she was not convinced that the conversion was a change of use: “I think a Starbucks and a Jack in the Box are both restaurants.”

On the issue of increased intensity, Ryan said she felt uncomfortable relying on data she felt was incomplete. City staff used trip generation counts from the Institute of Transportation Engineer’s (ITE) Manual which compared a fast food restaurant and a coffee shop drive-through. The generations given to the commission showed that in the peak hour of 7-9 a.m. there would be an increase of 66.7 trips and during the 4-6 p.m. window, an increase of 14.2. The weekend counts were projected to increase by 44.83.

Ryan was concerned that the data only had three specific time frames not including lunch, the weekend hours were not defined and it wasn’t clear where in the country the traffic surveys took place or what specific businesses they were.

“I’m probably most impacted by the Leucadia Starbucks, it is a nightmare and it backs up so that it blocks the freeway entrance,” Ryan said. “I understand the queuing problem and understand why it could be logistically a nightmare but I don’t think we get there yet (with the data provided).”

Commissioner Dalton said he saw her point and agreed that the ITE traffic counts are a little misleading. He questioned whether lunchtime at Jack in the Box could possibly surpass a Starbucks and said that the data compared the generic, broad categories of a burger joint vs. a coffee shop whereas something like a very busy In-N-Out would likely not be supported by the ITE numbers.

He, too, struggled with their decision: “Would a less successful business be allowed?”

Ehlers said his decision did not rely solely on the ITE numbers but said he believed that the morning and evening are the most critical times for the intersection. He and the majority of the commission supported the city’s determination that they could expect the increase in nonconformity due to the queuing for Starbucks.

Jack in the Box has been in Cardiff since 1969.