Hot Coffee and Homogeneity: The Danger of Starbucks in Philly’s Dilworth Park
We Philadelphians like a good controversy. We threw batteries on J.D. Drew in the Phillies 2002 season and climbed greased light poles when the Eagles won the 2018 Superbowl. Remember when enraged fans punched a police horse? That was us too. It should come with no surprise that locals were equally enraged at the announcement that a new Starbucks Café will be built at Dilworth Park — a 120,557-square-foot outdoor space with a lawn, access to major SEPTA concourses, and a programmable fountain that is gathering place for office workers, tourists, and families alike. Currently, the park is operated by the Center City District (CCD), a downtown business development organization that has been instrumental supporting it and other parks in the area, including Sister Cities Park and Cret Park on the Parkway. Local Brûlée Catering is operating the now-open cafe, maintaining a license agreement to sell Starbucks’ products and carry its name. In an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Conrad Benner, a prominent public arts activist and blogger for Streets Dept, exclaimed his disappointment that the public space would be used for the kiosk, stating “Dilworth Park connects tens of thousands of Philadelphians and dozens of Philly neighborhoods every day. And frankly, it’s public land that should not be sold off to Starbucks for their private profit!”. He then went on to create a protest petition that has over 8,000 signatures. Contrary to Benner, the problem with the new cafe is not that public space is being used for private purposes — Look a few feet under Dilworth Plaza and you will see dozens of stores that occupy space in the subway concourse, also a public space. Remember those corn dogs and snow cones that you used to buy at your local park? Private enterprise. Parks have long rented out space for profit. The CCD notes that profits will help support community programming as well as park maintenance. Instead, the pressing danger for Dilworth Park and the surrounding area in light of the Starbucks is encroaching homogenization.
Residents and tourists alike come to Dilworth Park because it is interesting. As a result of its adjacent uses, City Hall, mass transit, courts, Chestnut Street retail, there is a diversity of interesting people using the public space — children streaking and shouting in the water, dumbfounded businessman getting sprayed by the colorful fountain, dog walkers with herds of spotted bulldogs from the wealthy condos across the street. However, this vibrancy in the long run, could be the park’s greatest adversary. Noted urbanist and author of “The Life and Death of the Great American City”, Jane Jacobs, points out that places like Dilworth can deteriorate as they lose their sources of vibrancy. “At some point the diversity growth has proceeded so far,” notes Jacobs, “that the addition of new diversity is mainly in competition with already existing diversity”. Understanding diversity in terms of physical use and purpose in this faulty feedback loop, interesting places cease to be a draw when dull and monotonous establishments, hoping to capitalize on foot traffic colonize the space and push out the original sources of diversity. It is why Williamsburg, Brooklyn and East Village are no longer interesting — all the small businesses that once characterized the neighborhoods have been replaced with J.Crew and Trader Joe’s. Philadelphia place-makers need to consider adjacent uses beyond public transit and City Hall that have long supported the vibrancy of an area. Follow people are where they are going in their free time and you’ll soon discover the heartbeat of a place.
In this ongoing debate, I have been surprised that neither party, Benner or the CCD, have made mention of Philadelphia’s own La Colombe which sits yards from Starbucks. La Colombe has been a key player in the third wave coffee movement — and in the day in age of “Uber Eats” and grocery delivery, folks will wait an ungodly amount of time for a pour over (when my husband worked at an advertising agency in Wanamaker, he and his colleagues would daily tromp across the square to get espresso shots). Their flaky almond croissants are made in-house on Frankford Avenue, are the closest thing I have had stateside to its French counterpart. For years, even before construction of the park, La Colombe played the same function that Dilworth has on a micro level. It has been one of the few generators of street activity, especially in the normally dead hours of late morning and early afternoon, in the North-West quadrant of City Hall. Here lays Jacobs’ prophecy — why in the name of black coffee, would you build a business that is in direct competition to a local business that generates foot-traffic and interest? Especially a business whose corporate headquarters are located in Philadelphia? (Todd Carmichael, we apologize — please don’t relocate to Delaware) Starbucks has long been a global case-study in homogenization. There is already a 23% Starbucks cafe saturation in the immediate area — the addition of Ventis, Grandes, and unicorn Frappuccinos will make the plaza feel oddly ubiquitous — an indicator of a homogeneous place that does not warrant a return trip. There is no reference to La Colombe in the CCD’s press releases about the kiosk. Ironically, however, a past Center City District dining article dated from February 2018 made the following recommendation: “For the perfect mix, try the Pure Black & Tan- half Draft Latte, half cold brew”.
Here lies an opportunity for CCD to capitalize on sustainable place-making: kick-start investment in a local business that has already positively influenced the area. I am not saying that the kiosk has to be a La Colombe, but at least consider the local businesses with great food that have supported the vibrancy of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. If function should follow form — we need to consider what will bring more people to Dilworth Park, generate foot traffic, and cultivate a sense of uniqueness. I am not saying it will be easy, it is certainly more manageable to have a catering company operate a faux-Starbucks — but we need a more tasteful solution… literally and figuratively.