Fishtown’s Anti-Starbucks cohort earns small win in the battle for Frankford Avenue

The city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA) issued a continuance on the project until July 10.

The proposed Starbucks location. | Photo by Tom Beck

Fishtown residents opposing the potential Starbucks at 1405 Frankford Ave. won a small battle against their war on Starbucks Wednesday afternoon when the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment issued a continuance on the project until July 10. Starbucks and its attorney, Michael Phillips, were hoping to have the project approved at the meeting. But resistance from Fishtown Co., a local community organization that supports Fishtown businesses, convinced the ZBA that the Fishtown Co.’s attorney, Fishtown-based Leo Mulvihill, needed time to review documents related to the project – namely, a pedestrian study that was conducted.

The meeting was held not because of a variance, but rather because of an ordinance passed 10 years ago by former City Councilman Frank DiCicco establishing the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay District, which mandates that sitdown restaurants and nightclubs appear in front of communities prior to opening to essentially make sure the businesses fit the context of the area (coincidentally, DiCicco is now the chairman of the ZBA). Prior to the ZBA meeting, many expected the ZBA to approve the overlay because of the prevalence of coffee shops in the neighborhood. This argument was cited by Phillips in his testimony.

“Given the growth of Frankford Avenue’s commercial corridor and numerous eating and drinking establishments, normally this shouldn’t be controversial,” Phillips said before the board. “You have La Colombe a block and a half away. Steap and Grind is another coffee shop at 1619 Frankford Ave.”

Phillips also cited local coffee shops Milkcrate Cafe, Kopi Latte, Kurant Brew & Brew, Hello Donuts and ReAnimator. 

“The only reason that there’s any controversy whatsoever is that my client is Starbucks,” Phillips said, referencing the community’s disapproval of a corporate giant coffee shop entering a neighborhood that primarily features locally owned and Philadelphia-based businesses. At an April Fishtown Neighbors Association meeting in which Phillips and the Starbucks development team presented their plans to the neighborhood, residents voted 50-12 against the project. Many at the meeting specifically said they voted against the proposal because they didn’t want large corporations entering the Frankford Avenue corridor. Mulvhill used this argument in his testimony against Starbucks.

“It’s not a joke when you are a small business owner and you have a big corporation coming into a giant space and that’s where the community welfare concerns are made,” he said. 

Some residents who are avid bicyclists, like Nadia Shafer, were angered by Starbucks’ delivery policy for the store, which would not – and is not mandated to – have a loading zone. As a result, delivery trucks would be forced to double park on Frankford Avenue, blocking off a lane during the store’s daily deliveries. 

“Frankford Avenue is a really high-traffic [corridor],” said Shafer. “It’s dangerous enough already for bikers, pedestrians and even vehicles so I think blocking a whole lane of traffic literally every day is problematic for our community.”

Lizanne Kile, senior store development manager at Starbucks, understood, and noted that Starbucks stores generally have a lot of “flexibility” for deliveries.

“Typically, our stores get deliveries when our stores are closed so that it’s quick,” she said. She also noted that deliveries typically take about 20 minutes.

When Mulvihill asked the board for a continuance, Phillips accused him of doing nothing more than delaying the process.

“This is an effort just to delay this,” Phillips said, “in the hopes that…Starbucks will just go away.”

In a letter to the board, Johnny Brenda’s owner and Fishtown Co. President Paul Kimport wrote that “communities have seen how large national chains directly and indirectly negatively affect both local economics and quality of life.” Examples of this cited by Kimport include “displacement of existing businesses,” “less community and civic engagement and investment as compared to locally owned businesses,” “consistent increases towards unsustainably high square ft. retail pricing,” “heavier vehicular traffic,” “identity diminishment from loss in community character and expression” and “changes of motivation and orientation from a place of community and cultural development to one of pure commerce.”

Facing community backlash, Starbucks announced plans to put the project on hold about two weeks after the initial FNA meeting took place, citing its desire to “make sure we are a good neighbor,” spokeswoman Katie Rodihan told PhillyMag. At the ZBA meeting, Phillips said the development team asked to go back in front of the community after the vote to have a discussion, but was told it wouldn’t be allowed. The Star reached out to Ian Wilson, the chair of the FNA’s zoning board, who confirmed this.

“We did receive an inquiry from Michael Phillips after the initial ZBA hearing,” Wilson wrote in an email. “Essentially, Phillips and I discussed that holding another community meeting to talk about design or loading areas would not charge Starbucks core argument about the appropriateness of a coffee shop use in this location. Starbucks intention to move forward regardless of [the] outcome of the community meeting was openly stated by a member of the Starbucks corporate team at the community meeting.”

Wilson also said that Starbucks inquired about contributing to the FNA’s rose garden project, which the FNA has plans to renovate and is fundraising for in the near future. The rose garden location is across the street from the proposed Starbucks location at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Belgrade Street, and Starbucks has already committed to monitoring the property daily to make sure it’s kept clean even despite the fact that Starbucks doesn’t and won’t own the land. Wilson said the FNA wanted to wait to have a discussion regarding funding for the rose garden until after the ZBA hearings. 

“The FNA’s position is that allowing a large donation from the applicant during this critical community input period would be inappropriate and undermine the community’s recent vote ahead of a key ZBA hearing,” he wrote.

This comes despite the fact that the FNA is officially opposed to the Starbucks location. In a letter to the ZBA dated April 12, 2019, the FNA highlights the overpopulation of coffee shops in the area, the lack of an available loading zone for deliveries and perceived lack of commitment to the local neighborhood as reasons for its opposition.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Leo Mulvhill represented Fishtown BID. He represented Fishtown Co.