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STARBUCKS CONTROVERSY ON ELMWOOD STRIP HEADS TO COUNCIL

On the Elmwood Strip, where coffee always stimulates a good debate, the chatter isn't about politics or art.

What's stirring the pot in recent weeks is a proposal by the giant Starbucks Coffee Co. to build an outlet at 931 Elmwood Ave., two doors from a popular local coffeehouse.

Starbucks' plans have prompted meetings, speeches and a petition drive against the chain by hundreds of supporters of Caffe Aroma, 957 Elmwood Ave.

This week, the heat is turned on the Common Council, where members will be asked in meetings Monday and Tuesday to choose between Starbucks and its opponents, led by an energetic group of Elmwood Avenue merchants who fear the competition from the Seattle-based coffee conglomerate.

"Everybody's trying to stay the hell away from it," said one Council member, who asked not to be identified.

In all likelihood, Council members and other observers said last week, the city cannot and will not stop Starbucks from landing somewhere on Elmwood Avenue.

According to Council Majority Leader Rosemarie LoTempio, the question is: "Will it (Starbucks) add or detract?"

"The people who have been doing the planning for that area have been very successful. We have to be very sensitive to what that community wants," she said.

The official closest to the issue says it's about much more than coffee.

"I tell people that Elmwood Avenue is the retail center of the city. Elmwood Avenue is now Main Street. There's more retail there than anywhere else in the city, when you look at what's been going up along the street in North Buffalo," said North Council Member Dale Zuchlewski.

On one side of the debate is a national chain that has grown from 165 stores in 1992 to more than 1,270 today. Depending on who's talking, Starbucks is described either as the Wal-Mart of coffee shops or a progressive corporation that pampers its employees and has helped to popularize the revival of coffeehouses.

The opposition comes from the Elmwood Strip business community, led by Michael Attardo, president of Forever Elmwood and David Cosentino, owner of Caffe Aroma. Both men accompanied city officials to Fort Worth, Texas, last year, and their presentation helped Buffalo win the National Civic League's All-American City contest.

The city also has a hefty financial stake. In addition to a $25,000 low-interest city loan to help establish Caffe Aroma at its Bidwell Parkway corner, Buffalo has invested $1.5 million on new, wider sidewalks and other improvements for the Elmwood Strip; and another $500,000 is planned for retail-friendly investments such as new trees and benches.

"People are telling me -- and I don't necessarily agree with them -- that the Elmwood Strip still has single-proprietor businesses, where a person runs his or her own shop. And some people . . . don't want that ambience squeezed out by a chain. It's the difference between Elmwood Avenue and Niagara Falls Boulevard," Zuchlewski says.

That said, he and other Council members harbor deep reservations about favoring one side or the other in the fight.

"People are asking me to say no to a business to protect a local guy, and I can understand that, but I have to make a legal decision," Zuchlewski said.

Zuchlewski said he understands the fears of locals about the fast-growing coffeehouse chain, which has been accused -- sometimes unfairly -- of aggressive price-cutting and other attempts to freeze out competitors elsewhere.

"But I don't believe it's government's role to say who can go into business and who can't. That's real dangerous," he said.

Agreeing with him is Delaware Council Member Alfred Coppola, who recalls when the Elmwood area was begging for new businesses.

"Will it affect others and bring in competition -- absolutely . . . (But) Overall, it's difficult to say no in a capitalist society, especially with this type of business."

Starbucks is not likely to disrupt area residents, so the city may have little recourse except to approve it, according to Coppola.

Council Member at Large Barbra Kavanaugh, a lawyer who lives in the Elmwood area, said she also can't find a reson to deny Starbucks.

"There is no reason to keep it out . . . I don't have a problem with them. We already have national chains doing business on Elmwood," she said.

The main concern for city officials is making sure no business is allowed an unfair advantage, according to Ms. Kavanaugh and others.

"My understanding is they (Starbucks) are not using tactics like they have been accused of in other areas . . . There's not a history of price cutting," she said.

She said she also expects supporters of locally owned coffee shops will continue to patronize them.

"People who can't get into Caffe Aroma will go there (to Starbucks.) I live nearby and there are days you can't get in there (Caffe Aroma)," she said.

At the heart of the Common Council's debate is expected to be the Elmwood Avenue special zoning district and whether Starbucks fits the character of the neighborhood, according to Zuchlewski and others.

"How you add into the decision the ambience of a neighborhood versus a chain? I don't know how you get involved in that," he said.

Zuchlewski also believes it may be time to reconsider the special zoning for Elmwood Avenue.

"I've been dealing with the special zoning for six years. In my term, every time a business has come before the Common Council through the special zoning, some other business has come in to object because of the competition," he said.

Mayor Masiello's director of communications, Stephen T. Banko III, said the city will continue to support local businesses. But, he added: "There's a finite limit to what a city can do."

In one sense, Starbucks' decision represents a plus for Buffalo, some believe.

"I think we're a victim of our own success . . . We've gone national with the All-American City contest (and) with Forever Elmwood being a part of that," said Zuchlewski.

According to Zuchlewski:

"It's not an issue of whether Starbucks comes on Elmwood Avenue, or not. Starbucks is coming to Elmwood Avenue, one way or another. I would rather have them before the Common Council, where we can extract some conditions out of them."

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