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Bitter Blend

Will Starbucks suck the soul out of Andersonville

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By Chris Larson

When Rhonda Welbel opened Kopi Cafe in 1991, she joined an eclectic mix of independent businesses lining Clark Street north of Foster. The heart of Andersonville's business district included Swedish shops and eateries that had been there for decades, as well as the Middle Eastern restaurants and Asian groceries established during the 70s and 80s. Women & Children First bookstore had moved from Lincoln Park to Clark and Farragut in 1990, and Kopi was the area's first coffeehouse.

As refugees from the Parks--Lincoln and Wicker--have recently found, Andersonville's got it all: restaurants, bookstores, condo conversions. And in June it even got a Starbucks.

The arrival of the coffee chain didn't sit well with many residents. Welbel and her husband, Al Rose, say it's not the competition that bothers them: "We're worried about places that suck the soul out of a neighborhood," says Rose. If Starbucks encourages more chains to move in, the reasoning goes, a vibrant culture of locally owned businesses could be destroyed. "We were just overwhelmed by the amount of negative response to Starbucks," Welbel says. "I heard so many people saying, 'I moved out of Lincoln Park for just this reason, and it's happening again!'"

That reaction was widespread, according to Alderman Mary Ann Smith, whose 48th Ward includes part of Andersonville. This year's annual Midsommarfest street fair came a few weeks before Starbucks opened, and Smith's staff distributed surveys to the crowds. "We asked people what they like about Clark Street and Andersonville," she says. "There was a resounding demand that we keep the franchises out." And though it's not a franchise, "Starbucks was mentioned quite often."

When Smith heard late last year that Starbucks had its eyes on Andersonville, she and 40th Ward alderman Patrick O'Connor asked the company to stay out (the Starbucks is located in O'Connor's territory; Clark Street marks the boundary between the 40th and 48th wards). "We offered them at least 12 other locations where they could have done extremely well and could have been a tremendous help to bringing around some of the commercial streets that are still not completely together," Smith says. "And, of course, they blew us off."

Smith's opposition is a turnabout of sorts: in the early 90s she tried to lure Starbucks to the neighborhood. Back then she felt Clark Street could use the boost. "They wouldn't touch us," she says. "And now, after other people have taken the risks and made Andersonville what it is today, now Starbucks decides to plunk themselves down on Clark Street."

But not everyone was upset by the new arrival. Craig Foley, executive director of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, says, "The reaction in the neighborhood has been really mixed. Some look at it as a warning sign of potential development to come. Other people see it as a sign of the success of the neighborhood. Some people are excited because they simply like Starbucks. The range is all over the place."

The response from businesses has been similarly mixed. "Some of the stores are very excited; most are probably quietly excited," Foley says. "It means more foot traffic in front of their stores. Then there are also merchants who are equally concerned that if a chain had to come in, why does it have to be something that competes directly with existing businesses, instead of augmenting or adding something new to the mix that's not here."

Starbucks didn't scare off Madeline Khan, who started the Dellwood Pickle restaurant here six years ago. In late September she opened a new place, Cafe Boost, in a space formerly occupied by Coffee Chicago. Khan says she wasn't happy when Starbucks first arrived, but now she has a different attitude. "I was worried for the local merchants, like Kopi," she says. "But Starbucks is not competition for that kind of place." Kopi--a combination coffeehouse, travel bookstore, and handicraft shop--"is so unique, there's nothing that could touch it or even come near."

Starbucks' midwest marketing manager, Valerie Koelzer Johnson, says, "We certainly have the intention to go in and become a part of the community," pointing to the Andersonville store's support of a nearby homeless shelter, which gets old rolls and coffee beans. She thinks much of the initial hostility will dissipate "once people start to find out more about the Starbucks background and how much we support community efforts and get involved. I think that once we become neighbors, we're good neighbors to have."

Some residents didn't want to give Starbucks that chance, says Kopi's Rose. "We had customers talking about boycotts, saying, 'Wouldn't it be great--we could be the first neighborhood to shut a Starbucks down!'"

But it's been done before, sort of. In the fall of 1996, Dooney's Cafe, a coffeehouse in downtown Toronto, received an eviction notice from its landlord: Starbucks wanted its space for a new store and had offered to pay a substantial rent increase to get it. During what was supposed to be Dooney's final month, customers staged a series of protests. The publicity stunts--ranging from "support your local business" pickets to mild anti-Yankee hysteria--attracted plenty of media coverage. The situation quickly became an embarrassment for Starbucks, and the company relented. Dooney's never closed.

A different story transpired here that same year. Scenes, a popular cafe and theater bookstore in Lakeview, held a lease that specified no competitor could open in any of the adjoining stores owned by its landlord. A Starbucks operative tried to strike a deal with the cafe to allow the chain to set up shop a few doors down, but after negotiations collapsed Scenes lost its lease. The situation is different in Andersonville, primarily because Starbucks is already open. Besides, as Foley says, "it's not like they pushed out somebody else. That space had been vacant for a long time."

Foley says he believes Andersonville's unique character will survive the arrival of Starbucks. "The challenge is how to preserve and encourage a really diverse mixture, and maintain character as well."

To that end, Foley says, the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce will pay more attention to growth and development. "Because of the concern that Starbucks raises, we're going to start a community planning process on future development on Clark Street," he says. "It'll include merchants, the aldermen, and residents. Rather than just letting things happen and then getting mad because they happened, I want to be able to coordinate a proactive approach so we can go out and search for things that we want here." The Mail Boxes Etc. that opened late this summer is a good example, Foley says. The neighborhood has no post office, so some mailing service was needed. Plus, he adds, the franchise is owned by local residents.

Other chains may face some resistance. One recent rumor had a Gap opening on Clark. "That freaked a lot of people out," says Khan, who worried about congestion and traffic. The rumor wasn't true; so far at least, the Gap is staying out.

Alderman Smith's attitude toward Starbucks has mellowed since July. "I really was terribly worried," she says. "Fortunately, as it's turning out, it looks like the community is strong enough to support it all. I think it's going to work out."

Kopi's Welbel and Rose are less optimistic. Kopi hasn't lost business since Starbucks opened, they say, but the process of change is already under way. "There are a lot of older people who have businesses on this strip," Welbel says, "and after they leave, who knows what's going to happen. If they don't own the buildings, the landlords are probably licking their chops.

"What really upsets us," she continues, "is that what has always been really unique and wonderful about this neighborhood is the mom-and-pops, the individuality that this neighborhood allowed. Now, with Starbucks, Einstein's, and Mail Boxes Etc., it's starting to look like Main Street anywhere. Yeah, I wish Starbucks wasn't here, not just because of us, but for the neighborhood."

"We had our little enclave," Rose says. "We thought, 'Well, at least our neighborhood is not homogenous like the rest of the country; we've escaped that.' I guess we weren't immune." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Rober Drea.

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