Stockton put local coffee at a disadvantage by approving a downtown drive thru Starbucks

Back in 2017, I wrote that the city council should honor the existing downtown design guidelines and deny an application for a new Starbucks/Chase Bank drive thru on the corner of El Dorado and Fremont Street. At the time, my argument was generally based on the premise that we should not sacrifice the design principles that make a downtown unique– walkable, inviting buildings that front the street– for some vanilla type of retail development that is best suited for a suburban environment. It’s not that I think chain retail/commercial is necessarily bad, I just don’t think any city should bend their principles for this kind of “economic development.”

Sadly, despite a rejection from the planning commission, the project’s appeal was approved unanimously by the city council, and we all went on living our lives. But something happened between the time this drive-thru was approved and now: downtown’s fledgling coffee scene took off.
Since the city approved the new Starbucks, locally owned Empresso, Trail, and Terra all opened up shop downtown to go along with the handful of other neighborhood spots– including the existing Starbucks at the Cineplex. Suddenly, visitors and workers had a choice about where to get caffeinated– a true sign of revitalization.


Customers lined up for the new Starbucks on El Dorado

But the approval and now opening of the drive-thru Starbucks threatens to stymie this progress as the city has bent the rules to give the coffee chain a significant advantage over the local competition. Now, visitors and employees can simply hop in their cars to get their favorite sugary drink, rather than explore on foot these new options available to them.
But the new drive-thru Starbucks isn’t the only issue. In addition, the Chase Bank component of the project essentially moves their downtown branch out of their current 400 E Main location, taking their employees and foot traffic away from the local coffee shops that have sprung up literally across the street. The city council’s decision to disregard design guidelines and approve the new Chase Bank didn’t just reflect bad urbanism: it literally took away customers from these establishments.
Lastly, with the opening of their new drive-thru, Starbucks has shuttered their location at the downtown cineplex (which the city invested in!) meaning the whole “more jobs!” argument was a lie, which really city officials should have figured out when the project’s representatives were so cagey on whether or not the cineplex location would remain open. They essentially robbed Peter to pay Paul. And for what, exactly?

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with preferring Starbucks over a local spot, at least not in my mind. And in the end I am confident the downtown coffee scene won’t be thwarted by one or two drive thru coffee chains (a truly dynamic downtown should support chains and small businesses). But chucking design guidelines to make it easier to buy Starbucks (while also simultaneously pulling jobs/foot traffic out of the core) is an insult to the small entrepreneurs actively trying to revitalize our community.

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Categories: Community Commentary

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

3 Comments on “Stockton put local coffee at a disadvantage by approving a downtown drive thru Starbucks”

  1. Ned Leiba
    July 12, 2018 at 9:14 am #

    I agree with your comments in terms of the likely effects of the new drive thru Starbucks and the brightly lit Bank of the West. These are very close to the existing City Hall, but alas, that venerable City Hall building will be shuttered, for a location that has suffered a significant decline in retail and commercial life. Too bad our City Hall suffered from intentional deferred maintenance so to justify, perhaps, a questionable and expensive move to a less virtuous and more remote location.

    Although I agree with your observations, I do not believe the hand of government is good at planning for others. As I have recommended before, the hand of government – City of Stockton, County of San Joaquin, State of California – should provide incentives for its employees to reside in downtown, to become vested residents and citizens of downtown. Others then will follow. Then and only then will downtown be recalled to life.

  2. July 12, 2018 at 8:01 pm #

    Kind of sad to see this often manifested inability to promote a thriving downtown. Walkable CBDs are a must.

  3. Jon Seisa
    July 14, 2018 at 12:47 am #

    David, I’m so sorry to hear of this urban design tragedy and City Council missed opportunity, despite solid and comprehensive recommendations. Drive-thrus really should be banned from downtown districts across America, officially and completely. They have adverse effects, from contributing to increased exhaust pollutants for pedestrians, area workers and residents and their children (asthma irritants), and poor land use that monopolizes too much space to accommodate customer vehicles, when other businesses could have been added for more enhanced mixed-use customer options, punctuating convenience and access to a variety of stores and services.

    Up my moderate-urban street is a “Starbucks Coffee” on the corner of a main intersection with no drive-thru, as a result, besides the Starbucks store, the corner lot also supports other businesses, a “39 Degrees” sushi restaurant, catering company, “UPS Store” (with printing, computers and office supplies), “SuperCuts” hair studio, “H&R Block” tax experts, and plus there is a small parking lot for 34 vehicles that is hidden inside away from street view. It also features between the two main buildings a long open-air terracotta tiled courtyard with shaded parasol-tables, potted plants and palm trees, very quaint and inviting. It’s a beehive of activity, and all the neighbors WALK there to get their cup of Joe. Odd how the City Council doesn’t see something like this kind of urban design strategy as more desirable by the public than an asphalt-covered drive-thru queue line. Absolutely bewildering.

    Your positive and encouraging tenacity on covering these matters is well appreciated. Please continue the “REAWAKENING” of Stockton to a better future!

    Thank you.



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