Starbucks brews up controversy about chain stores in Southie
To developer Michael Norton, the Starbucks he wants to bring to the busy corner of L Street and East Broadway in South Boston represents the best way to recoup his investment after he couldn’t open a full-service restaurant.
But to Cranberry Cafe owner Cathe Walsh, the arrival of the Seattle-based coffee chain represents not just a new rival across the street. To her, it would be the beginning of the end to the East Broadway she knows and loves.
“The line has to be drawn somewhere,” Walsh said. “We do not need a corporate giant on East Broadway.”
The two sides faced off at a contentious community meeting at the Tynan Elementary School Monday night, ostensibly to discuss a normally routine city license request for a Starbucks to open at 749 East Broadway. The meeting lasted more than an hour, and the bitterness among the 75-plus attendees made it clear that this was about more than just a simple coffee shop.
For many who were there, this was an opportunity to make a stand. They’ve watched as the schools, factories, and churches they grew up with were converted into luxury condos.
Some beloved establishments such as Jones and Terrie’s Place are long gone — and Stop & Shop and Rite Aid hold dominant positions on East Broadway. But the independent shops that line both sides of the street represent a crucial part of Southie’s identity, something that has endured the condo onslaught.
These battles aren’t unique to Southie. North End residents once fought a Dunkin’ Donuts proposed for Hanover Street, for example, and the Whole Foods store on Jamaica Plain’s Centre Street didn’t arrive quietly or smoothly.
But the rapid shifts underway in South Boston make big chains a particularly tough sell to those who have lived there a long time. And opponents of this Starbucks point out there are already a number of coffee shops and cafes within a short walk. (One happens to be a relatively new Dunkin’ franchise — a chain shop, but owned by someone with longtime ties to the neighborhood.)
Julie Galgay worries some of those local shops won’t survive. Local merchants, she notes, played an indispensable role in the fashion-show fund-raiser she helped organize for the South Boston Catholic Academy last weekend.
“What makes this town special is the people,” Galgay said at the meeting. “For us, it’s the small stores.”
The critics’ voices have been heard in Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office: The mayor’s office on Tuesday said it’s opposed to the Starbucks due to inadequate support in the neighborhood.
It’s unclear how that opposition will play out with the city’s licensing board, which is expected to hold a hearing to discuss the common victualler’s license for the Starbucks on Wednesday morning, and then vote on the request Thursday. These types of license requests are typically perfunctory, often considered a done deal by this point. Norton has already won zoning approval for a restaurant in that space.
For its part, a spokesperson for Starbucks said it is committed to being a good neighbor, having an open dialog about local concerns, and building strong connections with the community.
Norton bought the corner lot from the Cox family in 2011, and later tore down the older building there, replacing it with the existing two-story structure, with two rental apartments upstairs and the restaurant space at street level.
Kristen Scanlon, a lawyer who has represented Norton, said her client applied for alcohol licenses from the city’s licensing commission three times, starting in 2013. Each time, his requests were deferred. The most recent attempt was in February, when Norton unsuccessfully sought one of 10 unrestricted licenses made available thanks to state legislation aimed at prompting more restaurants in some of the city’s neighborhoods.
Norton, she said, had hoped to acquire a license from the city, one that can be maintained for a relatively nominal fee, rather than paying for one on the open market. Beer and wine licenses can sell for $85,000, she said, and all-alcohol permits can sell in the $400,000 range.
“He’s spent a lot of time and money in that neighborhood that he’s lived in his entire life,” Scanlon said. “It’s not a move to dis the neighborhood. He’s got this building now that he’s trying to not have it be an empty storefront, like it’s been for almost a year.”
Norton said he tried to develop a restaurant that the community could embrace. The potential for an Italian restaurant was floated early on.
But without an alcohol license, he said, it would be tough to obtain the financing for a full-service restaurant. He also said he talked to younger residents who line up nearby for the bus for their downtown jobs, and most told him they would be happy with a Starbucks. And there are plenty of residents — including one who spoke up on Tuesday, identifying herself as a “tea drinker” — who are simply eager to see something occupy that empty space.
Maureen Dahill, editor of the Caught in Southie online magazine, said she believes a majority of nearby residents probably would welcome a Starbucks there. She’s seen the articles that claim Starbucks can boost nearby businesses and property values, but she also appreciates her neighbors’ apprehension and their concerns about the urban planning for their part of the city.
“Starbucks is definitely a symbol of gentrification,” said Dahill, who said she would have preferred a full-service restaurant in that spot. “I think that’s one of the reasons that people got so crazy about it.”
The contentiousness surprised Eileen Murphy, who lives a couple blocks away from the site in question. She jokes that the place should be called “Caffeine Corner,” given all the coffee joints. But she hopes there would be enough business to go around even after Starbucks shows up.
“There’s no shortage of coffee cups of all shapes and colors in this neighborhood,” Murphy said. “[But] I think there’s room for green and white.”