With 18,000 locations worldwide, and 11,000 in the U.S., Americans love their Starbucks. San Francisco is no exception – there are nearly 80 locations in the city and the coffee giant is in talks with city officials about adding yet another store in the city’s iconic Castro district.
At the corner of Market and Sanchez, the proposed café would boast 2,500 square feet, outdoor seating, and enough space for local groups to hold meetings.
But it’s not a done deal – and the owners of nearby cafes, residents and neighborhood associations have been fighting against the plan.
“This neighborhood and what happens to it is going to be shaped in the next 18-24 months in these decisions, one by one, whether or not we let formula retail in,” says Wendy Mogg, who owns Sweet Inspiration Bakery. “Is it going to be a neighborhood with some character, with some individuality, with local ownership? Or is it going to be a strip mall?”
Mogg and her business partner started Sweet Inspiration about two years ago.
“Almost immediately, [we] were approached by Starbucks wanting to come in on the corner,” says Mogg.
Their vision for the neighborhood did not include a new Starbucks, so they started looking for other like-minded people.
“We walked around from coffee shop to coffee shop. Our first instinct was to go to catch the pulse because we're not excited about this,” says Mogg.
They developed strategies to block the new Starbucks and approached the San Francisco Planning Commission. She explained how it works: “The first is all of this data that you get into the file – that’s where you lay out your thoughtful arguments. ‘Here was the benchmark that they were supposed to meet with their conditional use application. And they didn’t do it and here’s how.’”
The data is dull, perhaps, but necessary. But then there’s the drama.
“It’s showing up on the day of the commission meeting with other people, showing up in force, having colorful things to wave, having a number of bodies representing different businesses and local merchants, local neighborhood associations and just individual residents saying: ‘We don’t want this.’ It can be as simple as that and that can sway some of the vote,” Mogg explains.
You might be thinking wondering what the harm is in one more Starbucks? Right now, the Upper Market Street corridor has a lot of formula retail. According to the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, 28 percent of the shops are chains, which is unusual for San Francisco. The next highest neighboring areas are Upper Haight Street and Valencia Street, at 13 percent and three percent, respectively.
Still, Mogg doesn’t have that much support for keeping formula retail out. The Merchants of Upper Market and Castro (MUMC), is an association representing bars, restaurants, hairdressers, and coffee shops. They voted 35-1 in favor of Starbucks coming in. Mogg and her coffee shop were the vote against it.
“One of the assets of Starbucks coming in is that they drive footsteps and it's on a corner that currently doesn't have enough footsteps going towards it,” sys Terry Asten Bennett, owner of Cliff's Variety Store and President of the MUMC. “We're aware that there's other coffee shops in the neighborhood, but after a lot of soul searching I think most of us thought the benefits of Starbucks going in there was going to outweigh the negatives to any of those individual businesses in that they would survive and be fine, regardless.”
These are the types of things the Planning Commission will consider as well.
“What we do is look at, number one: is there formula retail in the area already? The same one? Number two: is there access to that retail use like a same kind of company in the area? We also look at: does it fit? Does it fit with the community, with the aesthetic of the commercial district?” explains Joanna Linsangan, spokesperson for the Planning Commission.
I asked if there was concern in the city about the proliferation of chains and Linsangan responded: “Definitely. San Francisco is very unique. We're special and we're a city unlike any other and it's because legislation like this.”
Basically, the city says if you’re a chain with more than 11 stores around the country, you have to go through a few extra steps in the planning process. One is notifying all businesses within a 300-yard radius of the proposed site that you want to move in. Starbucks did that. You also need to apply for a conditional use permit and will be given a hearing date. In this case, that’s May 9 – and it’s where Wendy Mogg from Sweet Inspiration and others opposed to Starbucks will also present their case.
While Mogg and her supporters see Starbucks as an outsider company, the coffee conglomerate sees itself as a community builder. Nobody from the company would agree to a recorded interview, but a spokesperson pointed out that in 2011, Starbucks held the largest one-day volunteer event ever in the city, cleaning up and restoring Ocean Beach. Last year, it broke its own record by mobilizing 1,600 volunteers to clean up the city’s 11 districts. It’s an annual event.
As it is, Starbucks is a ubiquitous sight in San Francisco. Chasi Mitchell visits the Bush and Van Ness Starbucks “four to five times a week,” she says. “I've always gone to Starbucks ever since I was a little kid. Even compared to Peet's – I hear Peet's is better, but I love Starbucks. I'm a fan.”
Thomas Fritzler, a recent transplant from Germany, chose Starbucks over the Peet’s across the street.
“I've never been to this one [Peet’s], so I would've probably tried it, but I simply didn't see it,” says Fritzler.
That’s often how formula retail works. In most of the country, it’s everywhere. While San Francisco controls the number of chains coming in, if you walk around the city, you might notice a subtle change these days. There’s a new Target at the Metreon, and another opening at Masonic and Geary. Trader Joe’s has made inroads too. There’s no shortage of Walgreens, either – in fact, there are 67 in San Francisco.
There’s a lot at stake in the Starbucks debate, and this decision by the Planning Department will affect the city’s unique landscape, one way or the other.
The Planning Department’s hearing on the proposal to bring a Starbucks to Sanchez and Market is expected to take place May 9 at City Hall.