Earlier this week, some two dozen owners of North End pastry shops, cafes, and restaurants gathered in the dimly lit basement of Modern Pastry, the legendary bakery on Hanover Street.
Starbucks, the world’s largest coffeehouse chain, has plans to open a location at the corner of Cross and Hanover streets, a prime spot by the Greenway known as the “Gateway to the North End.” The longtime business owners see the corporate giant as a threat to the neighborhood’s old-world feel, and felt the time had come to take action.
“It’s about time we made a unified stand,” Damien DiPaola said to his fellow business owners seated at the wooden bar and surrounding tables. “Starbucks does not belong in our neighborhood.”
In parts of downtown Boston, Starbucks seem to be on nearly every corner, and there are 10 within a half-mile of the proposed location, according to business owners. But the North End has long resisted chains in favor of local cafes and restaurants, believing they would compromise the neighborhood’s charm and identity, not to mention its tourist appeal.
“Starbucks is everything that the North End isn’t,” said John Picariello, co-owner of Modern Pastry.
Yet the North End isn’t entirely chain-free. There is a CVS pharmacy on Hanover Street, two 7-Eleven stores, and a Peet’s Coffee, just a block away from the proposed Starbucks.
The Starbucks proposed for the North End would be part of a block-long development of three storefronts. The coffee shop would be on the corner of Hanover Street, where a Citizens Bank currently stands. The bank would move next door, and a third tenant would occupy the spot at the corner of Salem Street, according to Charter Realty, the property owner.
The design features a 35-foot building with an almost entirely glass facade. Plans also include an outdoor public seating area, which the property owner calls a piazza, with an interactive Freedom Trail kiosk and an Italian heritage monument.
The Freedom Trail itself will also be moved slightly to accommodate the project, a change that will offer a more natural path for pedestrians, said Suzanne Taylor, executive director of the Freedom Trail Foundation.
The land between the existing building and Cross Street is currently owned by the state, but is being transferred to the city, said Dan Cence, a spokesman for Charter Realty.
“It’s going to be a vibrant, active place,” Cence said.
The Connecticut-based company hopes to begin construction within a couple of months. But the project still needs approval from the city’s zoning board, which will review it after receiving recommendations from two neighborhood groups.
Many residents and business owners oppose the project, particularly given its prominent location. A Starbucks would not only hurt local businesses, they say. It would undercut the neighborhood’s historic charm.
“It sickens me,” said Frank DePasquale as he sat at a table outside Gigi Gelateria Wednesday afternoon, “to think that Starbucks will affect the three pastry shops that have been the backbone here — Mike’s Pastry, Modern Pastry, and Maria’s Pastry.”
DePasquale, who owns seven restaurants in the North End, moved to the neighborhood from Italy in 1955. He remembers coming to the Caffe dello Sport, a North End establishment for over 60 years, as a child. His father would have an espresso; he would have a cannoli.
Mivan Spencer, 29, now carries out the day-to-day operations of his grandfather’s business at Caffe dello Sport, serving customers like Renato Ilia, a native of Albania who comes to the North End because it makes him feel like he’s in Europe.
“This is a lifestyle I love,” Ilia said while enjoying a sandwich and an espresso at the cafe with a couple of friends.
Other customers said Starbucks conjures images of disposable cups with misspelled names and patrons sitting alone, laptops up and headphones on.
“It would take away from the beauty of the neighborhood,” Elvis Bega said over coffee at Caffe dello Sport. “You go there, and you don’t feel the warmth.”
On the cafe counter were pages of coffee-stained petitions against the Starbucks proposal, filled with names, e-mails, and comments like, “Stay local!” “Stop Starbucks!” or, simply, “NO.” An online petition, started by the same group of business owners, had garnered over 1,600 signatures by Friday afternoon.
Starbucks said the store, while in its “early stages,” would fit nicely into the neighborhood.
“Our local teams are working to design the right experience for our customers to make sure we’re reflecting the history and character of the community,” the company said in a statement. “We know our customers are passionate about coffee as well as their local businesses, and we believe independent stores and small chains can continue to grow and thrive along with Starbucks.”
On Thursday, representatives of Charter Realty, Starbucks, and the mayor’s office met with a crowd of North End residents to discuss the project. The meeting began with a request from Maria Lanza, the city’s neighborhood liaison, to speak in turn, hold their applause to the end, and keep their emotions in check. But during three hours of spirited comments and questions, her calls went largely unheeded.
Opponents, who ranged from lifelong residents to young, recent arrivals, delivered a clear message to Starbucks — we don’t want you here.
Sara Picariello-McGee, co-owner of Modern Pastry, warned that while opening a Starbucks in the North End might seem like a good idea now, it could backfire by opening the door for other chains.
“Soon enough, the North End is like every other place,” she said. “Then no one wants to come.”
Several opponents said they were offended by the realty company’s decision to call the outdoor seating area a piazza and flatly rejected its proposal to build an Italian heritage monument.
Karen Johnson, who manages government approval processes for Charter Realty, said the company was trying to improve the neighborhood.
“Our objective is to create something that is better than what is out there today,” Johnson said. “To do that, we need a viable project and viable tenants.”
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, who represents the North End, said that he had heard from people who support the project, and that he hadn’t taken a position yet.
“The fight is not over,” Michlewitz said. “This is not a done deal.”