An estimated 350 people showed up recently at a Forever Elmwood-sponsored community meeting. Many had anticipated that this meeting would have an anti-Starbucks agenda. Instead, a focus on thoughtful commercial planning for the Elmwood Strip made two things clear to all who were present: Starbucks Coffee is welcome on Elmwood Avenue, and community interest and enthusiasm is alive and well in the City of Buffalo.
The current discussion of Starbucks Coffee's interest in Elmwood Avenue has stimulated a necessary and productive dialogue.
The specific location of Starbucks at any point on the street could legitimately have been a topic for community debate and input. However, the larger community issue, and the one that was put on the table at that community meeting, is that of thoughtful and inclusive planning. It should be the focus of discussion among City Hall, Common Council members, neighborhood residents and business owners. The need for it was the basis for the well-attended meeting.
The meeting produced some relevant questions:
Is a single-location or multiple-location strategy for Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue appropriate? How do we integrate a new business with existing businesses without creating a negative impact on the unique fabric of the street?
What role should we expect our local government to play in any ongoing community planning process?
What role should we, as local citizens, expect to play as participants in the process of planning our own neighborhood?
How should local government and neighborhood residents, both residential and commercial, work together in this process?
What role should free enterprise play in community planning?
If a true and successful public-private planning process exists, what should be its short- and long-term goals and objectives, and who should decide them?
The comments and responses at our meeting showed that people in the neighborhood are passionate about Elmwood Avenue. They are ready, willing and able to demonstrate their passion when given an open forum to do so.
But Elmwood Avenue is universally acknowledged as a special place for all of Western New York, not just the City of Buffalo. Residents and non-residents alike are attracted to its uniqueness, charm and character.
The addition of Starbucks Coffee is not a real issue. Most pro-Starbucks community members have interpreted any discussion of the wisdom of a specific Starbucks location on the street to be an anti-Starbucks attack, but this is not the case. What most community members do support, however, is the need for real and inclusive community planning.
The dialogue that I heard, and that I continue to hear, brings up ideas for initiatives and strategies.
We should move carefully, educate the community and involve a variety of constituents in planning. We should not perpetuate a system or create a situation that pits local residents and business people against each other.
We need to regulate the structure of our neighborhood. As it stands, parts of Elmwood Avenue lie in four separate councilmanic districts. This does not aid coordinated and thoughtful planning. Elmwood Avenue used to be in one district; it should be again. And in the years before that can happen, the city needs to create a process that lets a single entity coordinate Elmwood Avenue planning.
Elmwood is considered to be the strongest shopping district in the city. This strength is the reason that Starbucks has expressed an interest in the neighborhood. It is clear that Elmwood welcomes commercial growth and diversity, but this should not take place at the expense of viable locally owned businesses or in such a manner as to turn the neighborhood into just another of Western New York's "cookie cutter" commercial strips.
MICHAEL ATTARDO is president of the civic group known as Forever Elmwood.
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