Fishtown’s battle against Starbucks earns another big, unexpected win in the battle for the soul of Frankford Avenue

The proposed Starbucks location. | Photo by Tom Beck

In a huge win for Fishtown’s anti-Starbucks cohort, the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment has denied Starbucks its request for a special exception under the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay for its proposed new location at 1405 Frankford Ave., which places the potential store’s future in jeopardy. Starbucks is expected to appeal the decision. 

The decision is seen as a win for the community, which, in early April, overwhelmingly voted against Starbucks’ desire to place one of its stores in the heart of Fishtown’s commercial corridor at an FNA zoning meeting. The final decision was 12 for, 50 against. 

“It’s to protect local businesses and smaller mom and pop stores rather than having a big chain there,” said attorney Leo Mulvihill, who represented Fishtown Co., an organization represented by small businesses in the Fishtown area. “I am happy to hear that the ZBA decided to listen to the neighborhood and the neighbors’ wishes.”

The zoning overlay essentially mandates that sitdown restaurants and nightclubs appear in front of communities to persuade them that businesses applying for the special exception fit the context of the area. Because the Frankford Corridor is filled with other coffee shops nearby, many actually expected the special exception to be granted.

This is the argument Starbucks attorney Michael Phillips made at the June 26 zoning meeting for the project.

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

However, unlike La Colombe and Steap and Grind, Starbucks is a corporate-giant coffee chain that isn’t locally based, which is something many in the community made clear they didn’t want at the April FNA meeting. At the same June zoning meeting, Mulvihill argued that “community welfare concerns are made” when big corporations move into an area populated mostly by small businesses. In a letter to the ZBA board sent in June, 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.”

As a result, Mulvihill urged the ZBA to deny Starbucks’ request for a special exception. So far, the argument has worked. At the June meeting, Mulvihill and Fishtown Co. asked for a continuance, which they were granted.

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

Because Starbucks is expected to appeal the denial of its special exception, Mulvihill said it’s too early to tell whether the decision will set a precedent for the overlay. 

“We can’t really say if it sets a precedent because this is only the first step,” he told the Star on Thursday. If, indeed, Starbucks does appeal the decision, the case will then go to Courts of Common Pleas. 

Phillips, the Starbucks attorney, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.