In Australia, Some Towns Balk When Golden Arches Beckon

A sign outside Maryborough tells travelers they are headed back in time to Australia's "heritage city," a turn-of-the-century town of stately homes brocaded with iron latticework.

But just outside the old town center, drivers at one of the few stoplights are unexpectedly confronted by a red-roofed Pizza Hut on one corner, golden arches of McDonald's beckoning on the other.

Ronald McDonald, meet Crocodile Dundee.

After decades inside a protected cultural pocket that a fast-globalizing economy seemed to overlook, Maryborough and small cities and towns across Australia are being targeted by a legion of American fast-food franchises.

McDonald's already has 536 restaurants in Australia and plans to open another 10 to 15 units this year. KFC, the fried-chicken chain owned by Pepsico Restaurants, has 470 outlets in Australia with plans for 30 more each year into the future. Pizza Hut (487 units), Subway, Hungry Jack (Burger King), and others plan scores more.

Australian towns have mostly welcomed such newcomers as long-overdue signs of progress - grateful for a new source of jobs for their young people. Few have registered concerns that corporate architecture may be visually "Americanizing" their communities - until recently.

In February, 32 architects and other "heritage advisers" to towns and cities across Australia signed a resolution expressing "unanimous concern" about the "inappropriate impact of development by corporate fast-food chains, service stations, and major retail outlets upon heritage towns and city precincts."

"Australians have been saying for a long time, "We love you McDonald's - we don't give a stuff about our heritage or architecture," says James Colman, a Sydney-based architecture critic. "But the last few years have seen more concerns about the Americanization of our cities and towns. People are beginning to worry that American fast-food people are just taking over."

Ironically, architecturally sensitive Sydney and Melbourne long ago rejected enormous plastic illuminated signs and aggressive "corporate logo" buildings in favor of more sensitive signs and structures.

YET the standard franchise building so often rejected in cities has been plopping down with little modification in towns whose political leaders are so happy to see a new business that they request no modifications to suit the look of the community.

"I've just come back from Australia where, unfortunately, American franchises are in their most unmitigated form," says Ronald Lee Fleming, a town-design expert at the Townscape Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Australia towns "have a sort of 1950s innocence there. And American corporations have had their way with them in a fashion we no longer allow in our country."

This trend of US franchises plunging into ever-smaller markets is not new, but quite noticeable in a country of just 18 million people mostly concentrated in small cities and towns along Australia's coast.

"The heritage of Maryborough is its only tourism tool - it has to be protected," says Beverley Carruthers-Turner, a Maryborough city councilor. "When Macs and others want to open in a particular place, they should be fitting in better. I don't think it would have been too much of an imposition to build something that better suited our town."

Maryborough boasts the nation's highest concentration of "Queenslander" homes - airy, elegant houses perched on stilts with distinct latticework and wide porches. The stilts allow maximum air flow in this near-tropical climate.

With another McDonald's restaurant reportedly on the way, Ms. Carruthers-Turner and other residents have formed the Save Maryborough Action Committee (SMAC). Their aim is to force future fast-food arrivals to conform to the look of Maryborough - and to prevent the relocation of Queenslander buildings, which are extremely popular across the state. Three per month are picked up and moved out of town.

Unless something is done about the disappearing Queenslanders, the heritage part of this "heritage city" of 26,000 people will rapidly disappear beneath a wave of fast-food restaurants, Carruthers-Turner and others say.

"There is a whole new franchising strategy being imposed on Australia," says Peter Droeg, director of the Urban Design department at the University of Sydney. "The delicatessens that were the anchor of our communities are disappearing. McDonald's and others are trying to capture the share of the market that used to be served by local, small-town outlets."

Representatives of McDonald's, KFC, and others deny they are insensitive to how well their buildings fit into the community. In many cases, they say, they modify the standard model to suit the communities without even being asked.

"We try to work to fit into local cultures," says John Livy, KFC's Sydney-based franchising director.

"We design not only with a practicality and efficiency point of view, but also to blend with the local community," he says.

Robert Beard, a senior vice president of McDonald's in Sydney, says McDonald's is sensitive to local requirements worldwide.

"We've restored existing buildings that represent a historic area and modified buildings to suit local needs," he says. "You can't reasonably expect to put up enormous illuminated signs in an area where it is prohibited or the community has different standards."

McDonald's free-standing buildings in Australia, he points out, are quite different from those in the US. A pitched roof simulates a homestead appearance that fits the Australian experience, he says. (Older McDonald's restaurants do have the double-mansard roof used throughout North America. But that style is no longer used in Australia, he says.)

Clearly, though, if a community wants significant adaptations, it will have to negotiate with McDonald's to get them, company officials say.

"If we go with our standard, free-standing building and a community has a problem, we will talk with them," Mr. Beard says. "We have two standard layouts that can be dressed up in any way to suit the environment. We prefer not to, but if it's sensitive, we'll negotiate."

Rarely is that the case, however. In Maryborough, the city council waved through the McDonald's in weeks with little public comment despite the concerns of Carruthers-Turner and others. Liz Vines, a Melbourne-based architect and heritage adviser to Maryborough, offered to negotiate to improve the McDonald's appearance but was told to stay out of the way, he says.

"It's the small towns that get ridden all over and big city communities that are wise to it," Ms. Vines says. "A few towns are starting to get smart and ask for changes. The companies may threaten not to locate in a city that challenges them - but if they really want to be there, they'll comply eventually if the city hangs tough."

Noosa is a small city of low-rise waterfront homes on Australia's eastern Sunshine Coast, a sunny, highly developed region sometimes compared to the Florida coast. Noosa officials say the town has become one of the premier places to live in the area by carefully limiting development. This has meant occasional clashes with franchisers and development interests.

"The community is very careful about our character, lifestyle, and environment," says Stephen Patey, a city planning officer. "We don't allow the town to sprawl. And when franchisers come to us, we certainly require them to comply with our code."

Noosa, he says, has succeeded in negotiating with McDonald's and other franchises on illuminated signs and other issues. Back in the heritage city of Maryborough, however, some residents worry that such lessons have not been learned yet.

"When McDonald's finally arrived, it was a red-letter day for this city," says Lenor Crouch, standing in the elegant front yard of her Queenslander home built in 1917. "We're glad to have them. But they do look a bit garish in an old town like this. We just wonder how it is all going to look in a few years."

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