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Area not starstruck by Starbucks
December 8, 2001
The ubiquitous chain targets Point Richmond in a venture with Magic Johnson to build stores in racially diverse areas

By Peter Felsenfeld

RICHMOND -- There's trouble brewing in Point Richmond.

Visitors still stroll through the quaint galleries and antique stores; neighbors still chat and sip lattes along the quiet streets. But behind the contentment, locals are bracing for an inimical force so disruptive it threatens to upset the equilibrium of the entire community.

You better watch out: Starbucks is coming to town.

The Starbucks to Point Richmond saga features basketball legend and store co-owner Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Councilman Tom Butt, whose company owns a share of the building Starbucks plans to occupy. The cast also includes irate residents attempting to block the ubiquitous retailer from sullying their chain store-free neighborhood.

"Most of the people I talk to are very unhappy about the Starbucks; it's our first franchise," said Juanita Hoffman, who put up posters alerting her Point Richmond neighbors about the store. "My concern is we're sending the wrong message to people who want to start a family-owned business."

Richmond is the only city in Northern California with a population greater than 100,000 that doesn't have a Starbucks. Point Richmond cafe and deli owners, fearful of losing customers and being forced out of business, wish the chain had chosen to inhabit any other neighborhood.

"We're already saturated with coffee shops and we're barely scraping by as it is," said Paul Garnett, who co-owns Rosemary's Bakery at 101 Park Place. "We don't see how Starbucks thinks they can just waltz in here and turn a profit."

Christine Hung, Starbucks' Northern California marketing manager, said the store, which officials hope to open in March, would attract customers to Point Richmond and improve business for everyone. In addition, the Starbucks will be tastefully decorated to blend in with the neighborhood, will hire as many as 20 local residents and will encourage community involvement from employees, Hung said.

"Our brand is strong enough so that people will seek us out," Hung said. "We've seen over and over that Starbucks can exist with other coffee shops. We often bring new life to other businesses in an area."

The store represents the latest offering from Urban Coffee Opportunities, a partnership between Magic Johnson's Johnson Development and Starbucks. The venture seeks to build stores in racially diverse, under-represented communities, often serving as a catalyst for economic development and local job training.

Johnson Development has similar arrangements with T.G.I. Friday's and Loews Cineplex.

With one of Contra Costa County's lowest median incomes and a large African-American population, Richmond would seem the ideal location for such a project. However, the company will lease space in Point Richmond, a predominantly white, affluent neighborhood that doesn't reflect the majority of Richmond.

Ken Lombard, president of Johnson Development, said he has wanted to establish an Urban Coffee Opportunities business in Richmond for a long time, and the Point Richmond area -- although affluent -- satisfies the company's diversity criterion.

"Most of the locations we choose do not have the level of income that Point Richmond has," Lombard said. "But the community has a number of quality retail options, so we thought it would be perfect for Starbucks."

Starbucks has signed a lease for a building on Park Place owned by the Baltic Square Joint Venture. The ownership group consists of Richmond Development Co. and a limited partnership called Baltic Development Associates, of which Tom Butt's company Interactive Resources is a general partner.

Attorney Josh Genser, who will take over next year as chairman of Richmond's Chamber of Commerce, is chief executive of Richmond Development Co.

Butt, a Point Richmond resident since 1973, said his neighbors have a long history of opposing change. For example, locals protested placing Point Richmond on the National Register of Historic Places and also objected to creating the Point Richmond Parking District, which created parking spaces along Railroad Avenue, Butt said.

Baltic Development Associates had trouble finding a tenant, and if Starbucks hadn't come forward, the property might have remained empty, Butt said.

"I believe Starbucks is a positive addition to the community," Butt said. "The company attracts this kind of controversy like a magnet. I think once they're settled in, everything will be fine and this whole thing will just blow over."

Rosemary's Bakery's loyal customers have collected 200 signatures from residents opposing Starbucks in Point Richmond. The issue will be discussed at the next Neighborhood Council meeting Dec. 26.

Peter Felsenfeld covers Richmond. Reach him at 510-262-2725 or pfelsenfeld@cctimes.com .