The December meeting of the community group Bridgeport Alliance ended with a standard group picture. Except instead of saying “Cheese,” members said “Fuck Starbucks!”
The Starbucks in question is slated to be built as part of a multi-store development on a vacant lot at the intersection of Bridgeport’s two main commercial arteries, Halsted and 31st Street. That lot has been empty for more than twelve years, after stores were relocated to make space for the new 9th District police station. For seven of those years, Glazier Corporation, a Chicago developer, was working to get approval from City Council to build a drive-through Starbucks and a second retail building, according to testimony before the city Community Development Commission. Finally, the project was announced publicly in late September, and by December, City Council had already voted to approve the sale. Construction is slated to begin this year.
The project has sparked debate between those who welcome the chain’s presence as a prelude to further commercial development, and those with concerns—like Bridgeport Alliance—about the impact a drive-through Starbucks will have on local coffee shops and on public safety, and a perceived lack of transparency around this development.
“One, it’s pay to play,” said Rick Bak, a business systems analyst at the University of Chicago, after a January meeting of Bridgeport Alliance’s Starbucks working group. “Two, it’s city-owned assets that’s being given away, more or less. Three, it’s building towards a vision of Bridgeport that’s antithetical to what I want to see my city become. It’s just absolutely the worst thing they could put at that corner.” After the announcement, the group put up signs online and around the neighborhood encouraging residents to call Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson and express their dissatisfaction with the project.
But by then, the development has already cleared a number of hurdles, including a seven-year planning process that spanned two aldermen, the sale of city-owned land to the developers, and approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals to construct a drive-through on a plot that isn’t zoned for one. While even most Bridgeport Alliance members admit the group is unlikely to succeed in derailing the project, they plan to continue to speak out and organize for transparency in local development.
In late September, the 11th Ward office posted several legally-required public notice signs around the lot announcing the proposed new development and circulated letters in the neighborhood. But many Bridgeport residents, including Bridgeport Alliance members, only heard about the project from a late November Block Club article. Shortly after its publication, Bridgeport Alliance formed its anti-Starbucks working group, and began organizing residents to voice their disapproval.
Residents have been divided over what the Starbucks means for the future of the neighborhood, which has struggled with vacancies and business retention in the last ten years. Its supporters include Thompson and Ed Marszewski, the owner of Marz Community Brewing and the director of several media and arts organizations—and unofficial “mayor of Bridgeport.” They argue that the neighborhood’s first Starbucks will encourage further commercial development on Halsted, where vacancy levels are particularly high. As Alderman Leslie Hairston said to the Tribune when the chain first came to her 5th Ward in 2004, “You are officially a neighborhood when you get a Starbucks.”
“A priority for the 11th Ward is the continued improvement along Halsted Street,” Thompson wrote in his letter of support for the project. “The addition of a Starbucks will help to attract other national retailers to this location.” In an interview with the Weekly, he said he hoped the development “will drive a lot of foot traffic” to nearby businesses. Thompson said that a study done in San Francisco demonstrated that the arrival of a Starbucks increased nearby stores’ sales by eight percent.
Marszewski also believes it will bring more business to the neighborhood. “If a Starbucks opens it means that the neighborhood or location it is in denotes an area that is ready for additional retail commerce,” he wrote in an email. “It brings more persons to the area in which the cluster exists creating more street traffic and multiplying the customer base of other retailers.” (Marszewski came out strongly against the project on Twitter when it was first announced, saying it represented “a total lack of vision.” He changed his mind after doing more research into the project, he said in an email.)
According to Mike Parella, a project manager with the Department of Planning and Development, the project is expected to bring in $70,000 a year in property taxes, between twenty-two and twenty-seven permanent jobs, and thirty to fifty temporary construction jobs. Developers have yet to contract with a second tenant, though Dan Abdo, a partner of Glazier, says that mobile phone stores and a fast casual sandwich shop have expressed interest in occupying the second of the two one-story buildings planned for the lot.
There are already two independent cafes within two blocks of the site—Jackalope Coffee and Teahouse and Bridgeport Coffee—as well as a Dunkin Donuts.
“It’s basically being built across the street from my business,” January Overton, owner of Jackalope Coffee and Teahouse, said in an email to the Weekly. “[It’s] receiving financial assistance from the city which was not something that was offered to me. I also have ten employees that I need to worry about. So to say ‘I don’t care’ or ‘I am not a little worried’ would be lying.”
Both Jackalope and Bridgeport Coffee are beloved local meeting spaces. “We try to foster a sense of community and provide a space where people from the neighborhood can come together and feel welcome,” Overton said. “We built the space in a way that encourages guests to sit and stay.”
One Bridgeport Alliance member, Sarah Gourevitch, tells me that one reason she moved to Bridgeport was for its coffee shops; the neighborhood is home to at least five others besides Bridgeport Coffee and Jackalope.
One independent cafe owner, who would only speak anonymously to avoid casting a negative light on their business, said they didn’t believe that Starbucks, which they described as a fast food chain, serves the same function as their specialty coffee shop. In addition to offering somewhat different products, they “started here. This is our community,” they said.
Rachel Weber, a professor of urban planning and policy at UIC, says that new development can sometimes help attract more development, or at least have a neutral effect on nearby businesses. “If you add new space it doesn’t always take away existing businesses, or the business from those business. It depends on what’s being offered,” she said. “If there was a cafe one block away from the Starbucks I might be concerned.”
But if a newcomer serves the same function as existing retail, Weber says, it may have a “cannibalizing effect.” “There’s a limited number of people who spend their money on coffee in the area, and they can either give their money to Starbucks, or they could give their money to that cute café on 31st,” she said.
That’s what Overton fears may happen. “I believe that we won’t see additional businesses open but we may see one or two local coffee shops ultimately close,” she said. She’s especially concerned that customers who currently drive to Jackalope will instead opt for the convenience of the Starbucks drive-through.
Jackalope is on a cul-de-sac, and it’s located on a street without meters. “People park there all day,” Overton says, and those who double-park and run in for a coffee are often ticketed. “Our number-one complaint is that we don’t have parking,” she said.
Ajay Bhatia, president of the firm that owns the Dunkin Donuts across the street from the lot, also expressed concerned about the potential loss of business. “Obviously I’m not happy,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I thought it wouldn’t impact our business at all.”
The Dunkin Donuts actually once occupied half of the lot sold to Glazier, back in the early 2000s. The property was seized via eminent domain to be used as part of the 9th District police station, which sits immediately to the south. Though the police station ultimately just used the vacant lot for water retention, the Dunkin Donuts was forced to relocate across the street. Bhatia says that he would have been interested in rebuilding the store on the lot, but wasn’t aware that it was up for bid. “It was news to me that Starbucks was coming,” he told me.
When running for alderman in 2014, Thompson campaigned on bringing more business to Bridgeport. In a questionnaire returned to the Chicago Sun-Times, he wrote that he envisioned a neighborhood where people “walk[ed] throughout their community to get errands done, do some shopping in boutiques and have a nice meal all within a well-planned space that serves as a catalyst for local commerce, jobs and economic development.”
Under Thompson’s tenure, new businesses have come to Halsted Street, including Shinya Ramen House and KL Nails. But others, like a mattress store and a dog grooming salon, have closed, and the street still has a high rate of vacant storefronts. A 2017 analysis of a three-block stretch from 34th to 36th Streets by the Red Line Project, a student publication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that sixteen of fifty-six storefronts were empty, and eight of those sixteen had been vacant for more than a decade.
Members of Bridgeport Alliance stress that they aren’t anti-development—they just want to have a say in what gets built in the neighborhood. They’re critical of what they perceive as a lack of transparency and public outreach in the development process. At meetings and in interviews with the Weekly, the group said the below-market-value sale of the vacant lot to a development company that’s donated $2,000 amount to Alderman Thompson within the last three years is a reason to suspect a quid-pro-quo relationship. In that time Glazier has also donated $750 to the 11th Ward Democratic Party Campaign Committee, the ward organization lead by Thompson’s uncle, ward committeeman and Cook County Commissioner John Daley. “I don’t know anything about that,” Thompson said when asked about the donations. “Typically, my policy is if somebody comes in for a zoning request, we typically aren’t accepting any donations. I have to go back and see when those were coming in, I have no idea.… That has no influence on any of the decisions I make.”
Appraised at $790,000, the lot sold for $625,000, a markdown of just over twenty percent. According to the developers, the discount is meant to account for the use restrictions placed on the second building, which won’t be allowed to house fast food chains, hair or nail salons, massage parlors, spas, or mattress stores. By Glazier’s estimate, a fast food chain would pay between $7–9 more per square foot than other businesses. The developer says it expects to lose more than $165,000 in rent revenue over seven-and-a-half years by accepting the restrictions.
But Weber said that such use restrictions are “pretty common” and “relatively minor.” “That alone wouldn’t account for the reduction in value,” she said. “So there is a question of whether or not the developer is getting a really good deal here.”
She notes that there can be “a kind of moralism around these use restrictions,” since certain businesses are associated with less well-off neighborhoods. Catherine Lowe, a member of Bridgeport Alliance and an assistant professor of urban policy and planning at UIC, pointed out that some of the use restrictions are racially tinged. In the area, salons and massage parlors, which Thompson cited as his reasoning in attempting to downzone stretches of Halsted in 2017, are predominantly owned by Asian-Americans. Especially given Halsted’s vacancies, “I think the focus needs to be on bringing businesses in, not out,” she says.
Bridgeport Alliance members—as well as Thompson’s challenger in the aldermanic race, David Mihalyfy—view the write-down as a subsidy tied to Glazier’s donations to Thompson. “Paying for a drive-through Starbucks in a residential neighborhood seems like a misuse of money,” Mihalyfy said.
Josh Glazier, CEO of Glazier Corporation, seemed bemused by the idea that those donations would translate into meaningful influence over the alderman. “I don’t think that we have political influence,” he said. “I think the influence we have is the fact that we can put together this deal.”
“Alderman Thompson—his heart and mind are in the right place, and it’s a pleasure to help support [him],” Glazier said, “not just because we’re doing a Starbucks, but because you see government working the way it should work.”
But members of Bridgeport Alliance don’t quite see their alderman working for the community in the way that Glazier does. “Bridgeport Alliance seeks to bring people of the community to the decision-making table,” said Quade Gallagher, chair of the group. “We’ve strived to do that with Alderman Thompson. Unfortunately, Alderman Thompson seems committed to doing the bare legal minimum.”
Thompson didn’t invite public comment on the Starbucks, as he does when zoning changes are sought from his office; there was no zoning change required for the development, but aldermanic prerogative dictates that aldermen have say-so over sales of city land in their wards.
In theory, the members of the public might have been able to slow down the development process by reaching out to their alderman’s office in response to the signs, letters, or the newspaper notice. But in practice, Bridgeport Alliance members and many Bridgeport residents didn’t find out about the development until shortly before the approval of the sale in December.
Overton also reached out to the alderman to express her concerns. “He doesn’t seem to think that a Starbucks being built across the street will affect my business,” she said. In a seeming contradiction, Thompson told the Weekly that he wasn’t able to dictate which businesses can build on the lot—even though he imposed use requirements on the second building. “I can’t sit here and say we can’t have this compete with this. This is a free market capitalistic society,” he said.
According to Bridgeport Alliance, the lack of public coordination is emblematic of Thompson’s tenure as alderman. Recently, according to Gallagher, it took almost two months for Thompson’s office to respond to an invitation to an aldermanic forum for the 11th Ward. Thompson’s office told Bridgeport Alliance he was unavailable, and that there was no other time he would be able to attend.
For some residents, the drive-through accompanying the Starbucks is another sticking point. While Thompson has publicly championed a more walkable Bridgeport, members of Bridgeport Alliance see the development serving drivers at the expense of pedestrians and bikers. They believe the drive-through could be dangerous to them, and especially to students walking to school at nearby Holden Elementary. There’s some research to support their claim: the Minnesota Department of Transportation discovered a positive correlation between urban driveways, like drive-throughs, and higher incidences of crashes. And a 2006 study done by the Virginia Tech Institute of Transportation and the National Highway Safety Administration found that eating and drinking while driving—which often follows a visit to a drive-through—was linked to a higher risk of accidents.
Glazier said that a drive-through was necessary to make the project financially viable for Starbucks. “Unless you’re in a very dense neighborhood, or a very special circumstance, they need a drive-through,” he said. He argued that the drive-through would be “self-contained” and that an urban planner who reviewed the plans said it would not create traffic issues.
Bridgeport Alliance is also concerned the drive-through will increase traffic at a busy intersection that already houses a shopping center and a gas station. Two different bus routes, the 31 and the 8, go through the intersection, as do cars heading to the Dan Ryan expressway. “I’m not opposed to development, because frankly, this area needs a good burger joint,” said Eric Pacheco, who is involved with Bridgeport Alliance. But a drive-through “is going to be a gridlock nightmare,” he said.
And a drive-through can work against the goal of increasing foot traffic to the area, according to Weber. “You want people walking down the sidewalk because then they’re more likely to go into a neighboring store,” she says. “If they’re just driving in and out, the likelihood of that kind of retail spillover is lessened.”
Bak agrees. “Drive-throughs just get people out of the neighborhood quicker,” he says.“If you don’t have the density and the vibrancy of the businesses, you’re not going to have the people walking around, and it’s just going to be another suburb. And I don’t want to live in the suburbs.”
At one point during an early January meeting of the anti-Starbucks working group, Lowe showed the group a picture of the Starbucks with a drive-through that the Glazier Corporation had built in suburban Elgin. “This is their vision for the neighborhood.”
For some, different visions for Bridgeport’s future are what’s at the heart of the Starbucks debate. Bak, who grew up in Bridgeport and whose mother still lives in the neighborhood, wishes for a return to the days when Halsted was lively and lined with mom-and-pop stores. “Bring back our public transportation, bring back opportunities for people to walk around and mingle, not more cars,” he says. By supporting the Starbucks and certain other developments, Bak believes Thompson is driving Bridgeport towards a car-oriented, suburban future. “That’s not what Bridgeport was. That’s not sustainable,” Bak says.
Even though members are not optimistic about successfully halting the project, Bridgeport Alliance has a broader goal. Through its opposition, it’s hoping to open the door to expanded neighborhood input in local developments pushed through by Thompson and others. Our goal should be “normalizing the idea that there needs to be community engagement on such projects,” Lowe said. “I want there to be a sense that the norms have to change.”
“This is city land. Public goods. Where’s the public?”
Sam Stecklow contributed reporting
Rebecca Stoner last wrote about Bernice’s Tavern for the Weekly. She lives close to the vacant lot.