What to do about a Starbucks? That question drew over half a dozen cafe and business owners to a Mar. 25 Revelstoke City Council meeting,
There, they watched as council gave the political OK for development plans for a new Petro-Canada on the Trans-Canada Highway, right where the old one used to be.
The Petro-Canada would have six pumps. The proposed convenience store is about 1,300 square feet. But it’s the 1,700-square-foot Starbucks with a drive-through that brought the cafe and business owners to the Mar. 25 meeting. They were there to find out more and voice their opinions. Due to standard council meeting rules, they were not permitted to speak.
The conditions of the development plan – some landscaping requirements, a snow removal plan, consolidation of two lots – were approved by council. A city report on the development also said the developers would be required to help pay for a traffic study in the area, although city staff were unable to quantify how much.
Notably, council decided not to send the application to the city’s advisory planning commission, a public body of citizens that meets to review development plans, and to see if development conditions are reasonable. It was one of three significant new development applications before council on Mar. 25 that council opted not to send to the review committee. They cited timing and expediency.
Coun. Gary Starling wanted to send the application to the advisory planning commission, but other councillors didn’t support the idea.
Coun. Steve Bender worried about potential traffic issues brought on by the new development, especially on peak weekends. “It’ll be like it’s a Beatles reunion out there,” he told council, conjuring up images of gridlock. He also noted Starbucks Coffee has rolled out liquor licences at some U.S. location. “A drive-through bar would be an interesting one,” he joked.
Mayor David Raven said that traffic concerns were overwrought. “There is sometimes traffic issues in the morning,” Raven said. “If you want traffic, we have to put up with traffic.”
In response to media questions, the mayor said the application for a gas bar with a Starbucks is no different from when McDonald’s or Tim Hortons was approved. It’s a highway commercial zone and it’s an appropriate development there.
Raven acknowledged that councils before his time had acted to prevent development of big box stores like Walmart in Revelstoke, but said it isn’t comparable.
“There’s a big difference between Walmart and another coffee shop,” Raven said.
Revelstoke has a vibrant coffee shop culture. I strolled around and talked with owners who didn’t have the opportunity to speak at council. Most expressed the same concerns. It worsens a traffic bottleneck at the highway intersection. It adds to the sprawling corporate sameness that characterizes highways everywhere. It shifts trade to the highway from downtown. For coffee enthusiasts who don’t fancy McDonald’s, Tim Hortons or A&W, it creates a good-enough alternative that will stop customers from venturing into Revelstoke’s core. They said it’s a corporate competitor that pays staff then remits profits to head office.
Olivier Dutil is a co-owner of La Baguette, a Revelstoke-owned cafe with two locations. “Coffee is a great way to bring people into town,” he said. “People want a great coffee culture. They want a good coffee.” He feels it’s a shame that the chain is sprung upon the town, without input. He’d like to see Revelstoke businesses get a chance to develop there, to showcase local talents.
“It’s just sad they didn’t try to get locals in there,” he said.
Over at Mountain Meals, owner Kendra Powell felt disenfranchised with the city process. “It just all happened so quickly. We offer so much in Revelstoke,” she said. “We’re lowering the bar by keeping all this mediocre stuff on the highway. If you marginalize it with chains, people will never come into town.”
PHOTO: Mountain Meals owner Kendra Powell said chain store development on the highway detracts from Revelstoke’s unique downtown businesses. Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Times Review
She felt an advisory planning commission referral may have bought some time, and she said it felt like the city was “skipping steps.”
Over at Sangha Bean, owner Krista Cadieux said her position was a bit contrarian. She scanned the four tables of customers and said she knew all but one of the dozen people in the shop. “I’m not on that main strip. People have to be looking for what I provide,” she said.
PHOTO: Sangha Bean owner Krista Cadieux wasn’t as concerned about a proposed Starbucks as most Revelstoke cafe owners, saying her customer base doesn’t have much overlap. Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Times Review
Modern Bakeshop & Cafe co-owner Josee Zimanyi said she was trying to understand how the city works its way through planning decisions like these. “I think it’s more about how much more development is going to be on the highway,” she told the Times Review. “Is [Revelstoke] going to turn into every town in the world that’s just the same? And then you think, well, it’s a free country.”
She added: “Revelstoke is pretty special and there isn’t a lot of that already.”
I contacted Starbucks Coffee earlier in the week. Luisa Girotto is the Director of Public Affairs for the company in Canada. I left her with several questions, but her answer was a surprise.
“It is not confirmed at all that we are opening up a Starbucks [in Revelstoke],” she said.
I pointed to the development plan that says a Starbucks is planned, noting the city itself had sent out an advisory saying a Starbucks was coming.
She said Starbucks is a big company that explores many locations with business partners.
“We don’t speculate on potential leases,” Girotto said. “Right now we cannot confirm that there will be a Starbucks at that location.”
When asked to clarify, Girotto said: “If I pushed the people that I asked, they would say, ‘I really don’t know yet.’”
A broader conversation
While the Starbucks may be up in the air, a conversation about what more is planned for the highway is worth having. When developers of the proposed Revelstoke Crossing near the Revelstoke Subway restaurant pulled out of the project in May of 2013, their latest plan called for five strip mall-style restaurants, in addition to three smaller hotels. Soon after that, the city’s planning director resigned, marking an end to hands-on city planning processes that focused on creating a more walkable, less car-based city.
Since then, city hall has focused on efficiency in their development process, including disbanding the development review committee under a month ago. After facing severe criticism over hold-ups in the planning department in the recent past, it’s highly unlikely this council will change their more development-friendly stance before their mandate ends in November.
At this point, there’s no momentum in city hall to embark on the kinds of processes that would lead to the complex and often technical planning work necessary to achieve an outcome like, for example, creating bylaws that would promote locally-owned businesses over chain stores. It’s easier said than done; after all, landowners do have the right to develop their properties within legal existing rules and bylaws. And, in fact, in a Times Review web poll last week, 54 per cent felt the new gas station with a Starbucks was a good thing.
In the short term, guiding development in the community in the direction you’d like it to take means getting informed and involved in the upcoming November elections, and finding out what directions candidates plan to take on these issues. And don’t forget, the rules just changed to extend mayor and council’s term to four years from three.