Op-ed: Starbucks vote makes Berkeley seem unfriendly to business

Several months ago, Starbucks showed up before the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board (I sit on the Board) to ask for a permit to operate a coffee shop on the corner of Ashby and Telegraph. It’s one of the busiest intersections in Berkeley, with lots of drive-by traffic and Alta Bates a short walk away. We’re not talking about a massive facility, more like a storefront that could seat about 25 people. Who would think this would be a giant controversy? And yet it was. The issue: parking.

After an appeal, the City Council recently rejected the Starbucks request. It was turned down even though staff from the City of Berkeley Planning Department reviewed the application and saw no reason to require additional parking after comparing a coffeehouse at this location with the parking impact of other coffeehouses in similar locations.

Starbucks did its own parking study of Telegraph and Ashby, as well as side streets, and found no evidence that parking would become a problem. Even so, Starbucks offered to mitigate the concerns of neighbors by arranging for several off-street parking places at the Chevron Station across the street from the site.

Based on the presentation, there were no clear facts showing that a new Starbucks would threaten the neighborhood with an overwhelming parking problem. This is the main reason I supported the Starbucks proposal at the time. But while some speakers said they worried about parking, the other complaint I heard was that Starbucks is not local. It was described as a monster, giant, global, chain. The anti-chain vibe was clearly expressed, and support for Mokka, the nearby local coffee shop, was vocal.

As far as I know Berkeley has no anti-chain ordinance. I would be fearful of one because it makes city planning a pick-and-choose-winners game. Do we worry about Whole Foods, directly across the street? How about Peet’s? Although started in Berkeley, it is now owned by a large German conglomerate. Would it be any easier for a Philz or Blue Bottle Coffee trying to go into this location? And, is this about a parking problem or chain store control?

Mokka is a nice place; I’ve been there. But Berkeley can’t depend alone on local businesses. Consider this: Starbucks would have hired about 25 part-time employees, probably kids from local schools, and provided benefits even for part-time employees. Starbucks would have supported local causes and events. In addition, Starbucks would have contributed $100,000 a year in taxes to a city that is currently running a deficit, requiring either increased revenue or more cuts to services.

The concern about unfair competition for local businesses is unfounded. I work with retailers. It’s well known among retailers that similar types of businesses, in the food category particularly, like to be near each other. For example, coffeehouses near each other give customers more choices and create a location known for its coffeehouses. The same holds true for restaurants, bars, and pubs.

The City Council needs to think hard about turning down Starbucks. What’s the precedent the City Council wants to set? Is this truly about parking or about limiting chain stores? Are we saying no to chains? Yes, we have to respond to the concerns of neighbors. But we also need to look hard at the real impacts and the real benefits of this proposal. That means listening to our planning staff and, in some cases, review and monitor what happens to see if restrictions might be necessary at a future date. But just saying no is not a solution.

The hard question that everyone avoided answering is, now, what can go in this retail location that won’t generate traffic, won’t have a negative impact on parking, but will allow the retailer to be successful? The realistic answer: nothing.

Decisions like these contribute to vacant retail spaces and less-than-adequate tax revenue, as well as the perception that Berkeley is unfriendly to business.

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Steven Donaldson is a Commissioner on Berkeley's Zoning Adjustments Board