The Corner McCafe, Missenden Rd, Camperdown
The Corner McCafe, Missenden Rd, Camperdown. Would something like this “smother Glebe’s village feel”?

Residents of the inner city suburb of Glebe are upset because McDonald’s wants to open a store on Glebe Point Rd (Glebe residents protest as McDonald’s cafe moves in). (1)

The Sydney Morning Herald quotes the President of the No McDonald’s Working Group as saying a store would smother the suburb’s “village feel”, undercut independent local businesses and offer an unhealthy option for school children.

We would really encourage people to not use the store and provide metrics or money to a global company that is not welcome in Glebe.

Opposition to McDonald’s and fast-food stores in general is nothing new. It’s happened in Byron Bay; Port Macquarie; Tecoma (see Would a McDonald’s in this town be all downside?); Darebin (see Will taxing fast food outlets improve health?); and elsewhere.

But there’s a big difference in this case. The Herald says it understands the Glebe store won’t be a traditional McDonald’s franchise with Golden Arches and Big Macs. It’s not clear what it’ll be, but I expect it’ll be more like The Corner McCafe that opened in nearby Camperdown in 2014 selling restaurant food – including “kale salad and tofu” – with little or no traditional McDonald’s branding (see exhibit).

But irrespective of what form it takes, what have residents got against McDonald’s? Most of the arguments are spurious.

The notion that McDonald’s isn’t entitled to open a store in Glebe because it’s a “global company” is nonsense; that’s true of other businesses in the suburb and many residents no doubt work for global companies. It’s not obvious why being a global company should automatically be grounds for disqualification. Would an ANZ Bank branch be unwelcome?

The accusation that it would “undercut independent local businesses” smacks of good old protectionism. If residents get lower prices from increased competition they’ll be better off. Existing businesses will need to find ways to compete; that’s the nature of business.

The argument that it would “offer an unhealthy option for school children” is irrelevant if the store will be closer in style to Camperdown’s The Corner McCafe i.e. just another restaurant much like many others along this strip.

But whatever form it takes, it’s not as if all Glebe Point Road shops are exemplars of good health. There’s already a Dominos Pizza, a Subway, a Bakers Delight, a cake shop, and a fish and chip shop. There are supermarket chain stores that will willingly sell confectionary and soft drinks to school children.

As for the health of the adult population, there are pubs and bottle shops on the strip and even a tobacconist. And I’d be very surprised if none of the restaurants sell desserts or calorie-rich main courses to their customers.

The charge that a McDonald’s store would “smother the suburb’s village feel” is puzzling. The company plans to use an existing shop so there’ll be no change to the streetscape. There are already plenty of restaurants and food shops so it won’t change the function of the strip either. And there’s nothing about it that would prevent the locals from continuing to congregate in the many other venues on Glebe Point Rd for social purposes.

Like Dominos and Subway, McDonald’s has done its homework and is confident there’s a big enough market for its product in this area. Some residents want what it’s selling; some will probably be looking forward to it. If not, it won’t last long; problem solved.

Glebe might have a high average income and a high average level of education, but like all suburbs it nevertheless accommodates considerable diversity. McDonald’s has calculated there are many residents who would welcome the cost-effective offering – or the speed, or the corporate service, or the toilets – of something like a Corner Store McCafe. (2)

I suspect opposition to McDonald’s has little to do with the reasons stated by objectors. The real underlying objection is to the sorts of people who eat McDonald’s. They’re bogans, they’re uncouth, they’re noisy, they’re unsophisticated, and they don’t belong in an upper income inner city residential area like Glebe. From the point of view of opponents, McDonald’s is symbolic of a different – and lesser – set of values; objecting to it signals something sophisticated about you.

Opponents usually look to the planning system for protection from the crassness they see typified by fast food chains. But its role is to manage the sorts of land uses that are permissible e.g. restaurants. It doesn’t have a role in deciding whether an operation is permissible on the basis of who owns it, the calorific content of its offering, the social class of its majority customers, the values of the owner; or the type of marketing campaign it runs.

And nor should it. Opposition to McDonald’s on the grounds of what it stands for is very similar to the impulse that drives opposition to the construction of a new mosque not because a church would be an inappropriate use in a particular location but because the opponents object to Muslims (see Tea Party planning: do the ends justify the means?). Admitting these sorts of considerations to land use policy is fraught.

It’s ironic that the sort of undesirable change some residents associate with McDonald’s has parallels with the way many now-fashionable inner city areas gentrified in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The newcomers profoundly changed the living circumstances of the existing working class populations in inner city neighbourhoods (see Why is Acland St becoming “Chadstone by the Bay”?)

I wouldn’t personally want to eat in McDonald’s, even in a (somewhat) up-market Corner Store. Fortunately, neither I nor the residents of Glebe have to. I recognise though that the demand for a store like McDonald’s is a consequence of the inherent diversity of suburbs; even suburbs with a high average income have plenty of low income residents (see Limitations of My School). Tastes differ too; obviously somebody goes to the pub that shows UFC on the big screen in Glebe Point Rd.

___________

  1. McDonald’s says it’s a three day trial. That sounds so innocuous but it’s a lot of effort; they’re doing it for a reason. I’ve elected to approach this discussion on the basis that McDonald’s is looking to a permanent presence in the area. I assume the opponents think the same thing.
  2. 38% of the 4,700 plus readers who answered The Sydney Morning Herald’s (unscientific) survey question, Do you want a McDonald’s store to open in Glebe, answered “yes” .