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Guest Commentary: The Starbucks Controversy. Now what?

Center City District's President and StreetsDept.com's founder and blogger were at loggerheads over the newest addition to Dilworth Park. Here, they lay out what they can agree on

Center City District's President and StreetsDept.com's founder and blogger were at loggerheads over the newest addition to Dilworth Park. Here, they lay out what they can agree on

This is a jointly written blog post from Center City District President Paul Levy and myself, Streets Dept Founder Conrad Benner. As many readers of my blog have likely noticed, over the last several weeks I have very publicly objected to the selling of Starbucks coffee via new Starbucks-branded kiosk leased by Center City District in Dilworth Park. I wrote an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer about it, and I even started a petition against it that many people signed. I did this because, as I’ve talked about many times over the eight years of running Streets Dept, I believe that our public space is too valuable to not have regular conversations about it. And frankly this Dilworth Park situation seemed, in the grand scheme of issues in need of our attention, a relatively easy problem to fix. As I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks, however, it’s not so easy. But the opportunity has presented itself to work to address one of the fundamental reasons this happened in the first place.

I won’t sugar coat it, this kiosk is going to happen and it’s going to sell Starbucks. This became clear to me after reaching out to Paul Levy to discuss our disagreement, to understand where we agree, and to work to see what we can do about this issue. The simple fact is that breaking this contract with Starbucks now would create many legal and financial penalties, both time and money that is ultimately better spent on creating services in the park itself. Personally, of course I will not be thrilled to see that kiosk selling Starbucks, but as you’re about to read I am satisfied that Paul and I can agree to agree on a number of key issues around the future of Dilworth Park. I think anyone who joined me in signing my petition can take solace in the fact that while this kiosk will happen, that together we have worked to push for more transparency and ultimately to make sure a similar decision isn’t made in the future.

When the original Dilworth Plaza opened in 1977, Philadelphia was losing 200,000 manufacturing jobs, population was in free fall and one of us was 30.

The first full year the new Dilworth Park was open, 2015, Philadelphia was adding jobs and population, but the poverty rate was over 25 percent and one of us was 30.

That same year, Philadelphia government was spending less on parks and recreation than 26 of the 30 largest cities—just $69 per person, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Both of us agree on the need for quality public spaces and support increased funding. We disagree on how to do that.

It is clear in the wake of this controversy that we can do better, and moving forward, CCD plans to work at communicating in ways that increase transparency and inclusiveness about contemplated major, physical changes at Dilworth Park.

The Kenney administration is now spending more, but many other needs still compete for limited public funding. Private sector resources can supplement scarce public funds, but the presence of a multinational coffee chain in our central public park offends some.

After disagreeing in virtual space, we came together for the first time last month in real space (over coffee, of course) to discuss how to bridge the gap. We agreed on several things:

  • No public space is being sold; the kiosk in Dilworth will be publicly owned, operated and staffed by a local company, licensing the right to use the Starbucks name. To break a contract after going through all approvals would create many legal and financial penalties, both time and money that we ultimately believe is better spent on creating public services in the park itself.
  • Civic spaces are special, our local business should be celebrated, and excessive corporate branding in public spaces should be avoided.
  • We should support local businesses, artists, artisans and merchants, scores of whom appear regularly at events in Dilworth Park. We can work together to attract even more local talent and better communicate future opportunities.
  • With the Starbucks lease, CCD followed its standard public outreach and the formal public approval process. However, it is clear in the wake of this controversy that we can do better, and moving forward, CCD plans to work at communicating in ways that increase transparency and inclusiveness about contemplated major, physical changes at Dilworth Park. In doing so, we are confident that we can avoid similar disagreements in the future.
  • You can make change by hiring Philadelphians to eliminate litter and help pedestrians throughout Center City and by raising funds to remake derelict space. You can celebrate the improvisational art of the streets and mobilize change through the power of social media. Working together, we can make Philadelphia an even more vibrant, collaborative, and inclusive place.

Dilworth used to be a place that relatively few Philadelphians sought out. Now it is everyone’s park, attracting 10.8 million in 2018. Office workers and toddlers enjoy the fountains, usually in different ways. Students, residents, families, tourists and shoppers, come to eat, drink, read, work or simply sit alone and watch the crowds. Everyone is welcome at free concerts, movies, events and the holiday light show. It is a sign of success that people are so passionate about the place, even if they sometimes disagree on specifics. We value that passion, and we will work together to give voice to all who love Dilworth Park.

Paul Levy is the President and CEO of the Center City District. Conrad Benner is a photographer, podcaster, curator, and founder of StreetsDept.com, a photo-blog that discovers art on the streets of Philadelphia. This piece originally ran on StreetsDept.com.

Photo via Streets Dept

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