Why Philly is fighting over a Starbucks next to City Hall

Dilworth Park is getting a new coffee kiosk — and not everyone’s pleased.

Rendering of the incoming coffee kiosk at Dilworth Park

Rendering of the incoming coffee kiosk at Dilworth Park

Center City District
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Update, Mar. 7: There’s now a change.org petition to stop the Starbucks.

Update, Apr. 9: The CCD president and the Streets Dept. blogger issued a joint statement of understanding about the project, which will continue as planned.

Coming soon to the southwest corner of Dilworth Park is something the northwest corner already has: a Starbucks. Construction has begun on a walk-up kiosk that will serve over-the-counter beverages and snacks. The stand will have a green roof and be wrapped with green wall trellises, adding to the landscape surrounding Philadelphia City Hall.

But the park already has a permanent coffee shop — does it really need another?

That’s the question raised by public art activist Conrad Benner. In a widely-read post on his Streets Dept. blog, he called the new kiosk an example of “bad leadership” in Philly.

“This is crossing a line for most Philadelphians,” Benner told Billy Penn. “It’s an absurd abuse of power for a private corporation to open up a Starbucks in a public park.”

Benner’s argument appears to have hit a nerve. His tweet on the topic has been shared several hundred times, and it landed him an interview on a CBS3 news broadcast. Grub Street even picked up the story.

“You’re kidding right?” wrote one Twitter user. “CCD took ‘public space’ in the new Dilworth Park and leased it to Starbucks?” Similarly, “[t]here is absolutely no need for a #starbucks in Dilworth Park,” tweeted a different Philly resident. “Please reconsider.”

For decades a barren expanse of concrete, the city’s central plaza has undergone a transformation since the Center City District took over management four years ago. Per CCD figures, more than 10.8 million people used the park in 2018. It now sports a kid-friendly fountain that turns into an ice rink and regularly hosts festivals, fairs, art shows, performances, pop-up markets and other events.

The Center City District maintains that building the walk-up cafe — which was approved after public hearings last year — is a positive move.

“The idea came about as a way both to buffer and activate that part of the park,” said CCD spokesperson JoAnn Loviglio, “making it more pedestrian friendly and bringing additional options to visitors.”

So which is it — egregious misuse or public amenity?

Here’s a look at the main arguments for and against the mini Starbucks.

Private use of public space

From Benner’s point of view, public parks should provide a necessary service to city residents. But the addition of a Starbucks, he said, just takes up space without meeting a need, since there are a handful of coffee shops still in walking distance.

“We as a country, as a city, as a state have spent decades underfunding public assets,” Benner said. “This isn’t serving anyone.”

Public-private partnerships like the one that has the Center City District overseeing Dilworth have become common in recent years, as cities look for ways to activate spaces without making their upkeep a drain on taxpayers. In his provocative original post about the topic, Benner acknowledged as much. But he also suggested erecting a retail shop under the name of a behemoth corporate brand was a step too far.

“What greed-fueled people at the Center City District thought this shit would fly?” he wrote.

As a matter of fact, the 28-year-old Center City District operates as a nonprofit. Before it took any action on the new cafe kiosk, the CCD said in a provided fact sheet, the plan was presented to and approved by public entities, including Philadelphia’s art and historical commissions.

Too many coffee shops 

One point no one can argue with: There are already a ton of places to get coffee in the area.

There’s that cafe on the park’s north side. Then there’s the La Colombe; the Philly-born roastery gone national operates an always-bustling cafe directly across the street from the park’s southern edge. Within a few blocks, there’s also a Parliament coffee, a Bluestone Lane, other Starbucks locations, Dunkin’ Donuts and more.

“Sure people love coffee, but there’s already a coffee shop in the park and across the street,” Benner said. “If your goal is truly to serve Philadelphia, put up a mural wall, a pop-up library, a public restroom.”

Coffee saturation isn’t a problem, the CCD says. Located 446 feet apart, the two Starbucks in Dilworth will be about two blocks from one another, which isn’t an uncommon distance in big cities.

“All of us are lazy,” CCD director Paul Levy told PlanPhilly in December. “Walking two blocks to a cafe for a drink is not human nature these days.”

Corporate giant upstaging local business

A national chain setting up shop next to Philly’s seat of government has raised hackles over lost sales for locally-owned businesses.

The reputation of this particular company doesn’t help public opinion — the debacle last summer in Rittenhouse, when a Starbucks manager set off a chain of events that saw two black businessmen arrested for no reason, is still fresh in many people’s minds.

However, both the new kiosk and the existing Dilworth cafe are actually locally-run, the CCD pointed out, operated by Brulee Catering via a franchise agreement. How does that work? Think of the Starbucks counters in Barnes & Noble bookstores, or hotel lobbies. The coffee giant lends branding, but does not actually operate the concession.

Takes away play area for kids

Providing safe playspace for kids is often a central goal for a public park, Benner noted in his blog post. Why not set up a playground or a mini public library or rotating mural wall, he asked on his blog, instead of a retail operation?

One of the CCD’s motivations for the new project was to make better use of the space at the southwest corner of Dilworth. The area already has some tables and chairs, but, per spokeperson Loviglio, “is often underused because of the constant noise and vehicular traffic from South Penn Square.”

In the CCD’s view, the new layout with the kiosk will be more friendly for kid play (and general relaxation) because it will create a buffer — the park’s south edge butts up against the always-busy five-lane roadway that encircles City Hall.

Rendering of the new kiosk as seen from above

Rendering of the new kiosk as seen from above

Center City District

New landscaping around the kiosk will not only include replanting the five trees it displaces, per the CCD, but also include new hydrangea, dogwood, cherry laurel and other plantings by Olin Partners, “making it greener and more lush than it was previously.”

What’s next

Benner said his blog post on this topic was his most popular so far this year.

That passion, he suggested, might be enough to pressure the Center City District to reverse its plans. If the deal with Starbucks isn’t finalized, he said, he hopes CCD will reconsider and instead invite a local roaster into the space.

“Or look at other things that are missing, maybe a sandwich shop,” Benner said. “What are things that would better serve Philadelphians? I don’t think it’s too late.”

 

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