The “No to Starbucks” Campaign in Ocean Beach – 10 Years Old – Part 4

by on July 1, 2011 · 1 comment

in History, OB Time Machine, Ocean Beach, Organizing

A decade later, unofficial boycott of Starbucks continues among OBcians .

This is the final segment of my four part series on the tenth anniversary of the anti-Starbucks campaign in Ocean Beach. (Here is Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Plan A – the Formula Ban

The passage of Prop A – the Formula Ban of chain restaurants and other corporate-type businesses in Ocean Beach at the OB Planning Board elections on March 12th, 2002, had been a major boost for activists boycotting Starbucks. It had passed with more than three-quarters of the vote (77%) at the annual election – in a near record turn-out of voters.

Prop A had been the result of activists in Ocean Beach linking up with anti-Starbucks organizers from all over the country and adopting a tactic tried in other communities.  Formula Bans had been successfully instituted in many cities and communities around the nation.  OB was attempting to implement one in a small village within a large city.

The joy that anti-Starbucks activists and their supporters felt with the passage of this initiative was almost immediately clouded by the attitude of the City and its Planning Department.

First of all, nearly a week before the vote, the City Planning Department planner who covers Ocean Beach, wrote a letter to the Planning Board Chair, deriding the legality of Prop A, and declaring that it should not be placed on the Board’s ballot. Planner Tony Kempton, in echoing the City’s position, stated that the proposition was illegal for a couple of reasons, both technical and bureaucratic:

  • The petition for Prop A was being circulated on paper with the OB Planning Board letterhead “without prior approval or an official action by a quorum of the Board,” violating a Board bylaw. The gave the appearance, according to the City that the Board sanctioned the measure.  Never mind that the petition was for the Board’s election.
  • Plus, once the signatures had all been gathered, the “petition was presented for qualification at a subcommittee meeting and not at an official Board meeting.”  Never mind that this so-called “sub-committee” meeting is actually the official, monthly meeting of the Land Use Committee, and never mind that there were 379 valid signatures on the petitions.

Kempton, who still works for San Diego, laid out the official City policy:

“… the City is not supportive of a ban on formulaic businesses in that the City regulates land uses and not ‘users.'” He went on to urge the Board to consider architectural design guidelines as part of an update process to the Precise Plan in order to “provide guidance for future development in the area to maintain Ocean Beach’s unique community character.”

“In conclusion,” Mr. Kempton wrote in his March 6, 2002, letter, “… it is my recommendation that this petition not be included on the ballot for March 12, 2002.”

Of course, the Board went ahead, held the election with Prop A on the ballot – and had a record turn-out of voters.  It did pass with flying colors at the community level.  But in order for the measure to take hold, it had to be added by amendment to the OB Precise Plan.  Only the City Council could do that.  The other method, suggested by Kempton, was to add it as part of the Plan update process – but that could take years.

In an effort to broaden support for it, to get every OB group and OB’s City Councilmember on board with Prop A, OB Grassroots Organization (OBGO) and Save OB Coalition organizers began meeting with reps from the other groups.  They wanted to form a compromise on the issue that all the groups could get behind.  Several people had met with Jerry Trussel, then head of the Main Street Association. The OB Town Council also seemed to be on board.  Prop A was to be on the OBTC meeting in mid-April and potentially on the OBMA agenda on April 25th.  Letters of support for the initiative were being solicited from these other groups.

The Campaign Morphs

Later that April, it was confirmed that the Newport Pet shop was closing in October 2002 – six months away. And the property owner of that building wanted to raise the rents of all the other businesses in her properties that were nearby. This included Bernie’s Bikes and Starcrafts bookstore.

This was, of course, the fear that had galvanized many of the activists against Starbucks.  The pet store was a favorite among pet owners and my own daughter loved Starcrafts. Who knows why the La Jollan who owned these properties wanted to raise her commercial rents. But we didn’t think it was a mere coincidence that the same year Starbucks came onto to Newport, other Newport rents started to rise, and small local businesses started to fold up or move.  In the end, both the pet shop and Starcrafts closed – Newport Pet for good, whereas the young woman who owned Starcrafts found another location in another community.

Around that time, we heard other news about Newport Avenue. Seth’s Chop Shop – a hair salon – was moving into the rear space of the Starbucks building.  And rumors were circulating that someone was to buy the old, empty Strand building and turn it into a store. One rumor was that it was going to be a mini-mall. Several activists wanted to form a “Save Our Strand” committee, and look into getting the building designated as an historic place – and hence untouchable.

At the May 1 meeting of the Planning Board, Prop A was endorsed by a vote of 6 to 4 with 2 abstentions. It was clear that even though the measure had passed overwhelmingly during the March election, half of the Board members were less than enthusiastic about it.  That night, one of the empty seats on the Board was filled by the appointment of Lynne Vanderpot, a member of OBGO. This meant that OBGO members sat in 7 of the 12 seats on the Board.

The Planners sent the text of Prop A to the City, and Councilman Bryon Wear’s office was reported to be exploring options on how to deal with it.

By the July 11th OBGO meeting, there was a telling development. On the group’s agenda, there was an announcement about Prop A, there was a discussion of what to do about the Strand building – but nothing said about Starbucks. It was off the agenda, off the radar of the activists – as everyone was now apparently into something else.

Inside the gutted Strand, circa 2002.

The new focus of activists of the Save OB Coalition was the saving of OB’s old, historic theater house. Nearly 200 letters in support  had been collected and sent to the mayor. The Strand building owner was going to lease it to L & L Wings, or maybe to Urban Outfitter, or turn it into an antique mall – and there was concern about what was going to happen to the BBQ House – a local favorite.   There were genuine fears that the old Strand building would be gutted to make way for something else.  “If it’s gutted,” someone observed, “it will never be a theater again.”

In the meantime, OBGO had its own website set up.  The Starbucks page on the website still was very popular. But so much else was happening that activists were spread all over the place.  This thinning out of activists became an issue at a special OBGO meeting held to address tensions and internal problems. Several people noted how everyone was over-extended. Others wanted to see more action from the group, less meetings.

Fade to War

There was plenty for activists to deal with. It looked as if George Bush was going to take the nation to war.  There was the potentially-leaking toxic dump next door to SeaWorld to deal with. There were election campaigns, the daily and weekly work of the planning committees that many were involved in, and a myriad of other problems and issues that needed action or to be addressed.

And the big one issue for a lot of OBGO activists was the war buildup by the Bush administration, the invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. OBGO geared up and held several anti-war marches and rallies in OB during the Fall of 2002 and early 2003. These were some of the first community-based anti-war demonstrations in Southern California.

Over the months after the passage of Prop A, there were the typical problems that beset volunteer-based grassroots groups: activist fatigue and burn-out; individual transitions of leading organizers; the resistance to Prop A by OB merchants and by the City and its Planning Department – which were intent in throwing roadblocks  in front of the measure.  These  all worked to lessen the motivation of the organized groups.

The Save OB Coalition was such a small group, that the work to carry on the Starbucks boycott fell on fewer and fewer shoulders. Within the other group, OBGO, activists lost the stomach to focus on the issue in light of the more serious ramifications of the nation going to war.  Other local issues also beckoned.

Now, ten years or so later, while standing on the sands of time, we can look back and while we do, we have to admit that Prop A and the anti-Starbucks campaign and boycott simply faded away.  At least officially.

Tilting At Windmills?

As we now attempt to analysis the campaign in hindsight against the OB Starbucks – despite it fading away at the end, the questions posed are these:  Was the whole thing a Quixotic tilting at windmills? Or is there any lasting substance from the fight?

Just on the surface, since Starbucks is still open on Newport Avenue, can’t it be said that the campaign failed?  The activists upset about its opening and who organized the campaign – didn’t they lose?

Yes, it is true that the coffee giant still has its foothold in OB. There’s still the familiar green logos on Newport. Yet, truthfully, we’ll never really know how the corporation managed to keep the doors open, even after having to close 600 storefronts across the country just a few years ago. We will really never know if the company had to operate its OB store in the red in order to maintain its image, and save its corporate face by not admitting defeat.

Newport Avenue and the rest of the OB commercial districts still remain relatively free of those familiar corporate chains and franchises that make business streets look just like every other business street.  Before Starbucks opened, OB had Rite-Aide, ARCO and the other corporate gas and oil companies, it had the banks, the 7-11, the subway sandwich shops, and Dominoes Pizza.  Since Starbucks opened, Wings in the old Stand and a subway shop are the most visible corporate chains.

But, since the opening of the coffee company ten years ago, there has not been a rush of corporate chains onto our main street.

Unofficial Boycott of Starbucks Continues

During this past month for a week, the OB Rag ran a poll asking readers what their feelings were now about the anti-Starbucks campaign, and the results were startling.  25% of the 143 respondents said they supported the old boycott then and still supported it now. This despite any formal activism or organizing about it for years – and granted we have fairly liberal and progressive readers.

Another 11% of the respondents said although they love coffee, they would never go to a Starbucks.  Another 10% were advocates for “home brew”, 7% said they didn’t like Starbucks’ coffee, and another 5% said Mama Mug’s makes better java.  That’s 58% of the folks who responded dissing the corporate giant.

Rounding out our poll, 14% asserted their right to buy Starbucks coffee and that they do buy it, 8% believed the campaign against the corporation was “irrelevant and/ or a waste of time”, 4% said they like their coffee and visit Starbucks “either on occasion or a lot.” That’s 26% defending Starbucks.   Another 6% said they didn’t know about any boycott, and finally 9% said they don’t drink coffee and don’t go to Starbucks. (The entire poll can be seen at the conclusion of this post.)

These surprising poll results do reflect the existence of a residual negative attitude towards Starbucks, despite the existence of any official campaign. Coupled with this is an open awareness and appreciation for mom and pop small businesses and adverse views toward “corporate giants”. You can see this in merchant ads, promoting the “family business”, or “locally owned” elements of their enterprise.  And to this day, OB still appears to be a unique community, different from other beach towns, as our main business streets still remain free of the domination by chains seen in many cities and towns.

Yet, commercial rents have been raised on Newport Avenue, and numerous small businesses have either closed or moved out over this past decade. Whether the rise in rents is simply a coincidence or a result of the “success” of Starbucks’ survival is up for grabs.  But the outrageous rent raise experienced by Newport Pet, for example, and the moving of other storefronts like Starcrafts give credence to the view that they are connected. We’ve also heard complaints from former and current long-time Newport merchants – some of whom had to leave their digs due to rent raises.

The economy tanking during this past decade obviously played a significant role in what businesses stayed and which ones went. Over the course of the last several years, we’ve attempted to monitor the comings and goings of businesses on Newport and our other commercial drags, and clearly, the economy is most certainly a huge factor.

The dire predictions of anti-Starbucks protesters a decade ago still ring out a warning.  It would be very controversial even at this late date if a corporate chain tried to open up on Newport Avenue. Would it be a Gap? An Urban Outfitter? It would be very tough for a chain restaurant to insert itself as one thing OB has developed is a plethora of great local restaurants and bar grills.  The new businesses that do open are usually fairly small and are locally-owned.

Yet how did this campaign compare with others in Ocean Beach against corporations itching to move in? 7-Eleven had been stopped – temporarily – in 1978 by activists opposing it at the Coastal Commission level.  In more recent days, Exxon has been blocked several times from installing itself in OB.

Then there was the fight against Winchell’s Donuts in the late 1970s.  The donut king wanted to move into the old site of an abandoned Texaco station at the southwest corner of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and West Point Loma. As local historian Carol Bowers describes it in her “Remember Winchell’s! – The Rallying Cry of the Seventies” chapter in the booklet “The Passing Parade” published by the OB Historical Society, Winchells had not reckoned with a new group called People Against Winchell’s (PAW), headed up by local activist Tom Yamaguchi.  “We favor a community-oriented business, not a fast-food franchise that relies on a high volume of cars,” Yamaguchi said.

PAW organized all kinds of protests, pickets at other Winchell’s, weekly demos at their proposed site in OB. They had music, baked goods, and banners that read “Honk to Stop Winchell’s”. A shadowy group called the “OBR” for Ocean Beach Resistance, actually firebombed two other Winchells’ storefronts, one in PB and another in North Park. Finally, Winchell’s was worn down by the protesters’ persistence. In June 1978, Winchell’s officials announced that they were abandoning construction in OB.

In contrast, the Starbucks battle, while a few acts of unassociated vandalism had beset the coffee store – protests had been legal and nonviolent. Demonstrations had been held where  hundreds of locals attended; over 1500 signatures opposing its move into the community had been gathered; a couple of town-hall type meetings had been organized; other OB groups had initially supported the campaign and had written letters to the landlord that was leasing the space to Starbucks.  There was the victory of Prop A- the formula ban – and its subsequent demise in the opposition by the City and by the din of war.

Still the campaign against the Seattle-based coffee giant had been strident, noisy, -even nasty –  and while it caused some to suffer inconveniences along OB’s main drag, it had been very visible. Everyone knew about it, even if they didn’t support it. And to this day, a good number of OBcians shun the place – as evidenced by our recent poll where a full quarter of the respondents stated that they still boycott the OB Starbucks, while many others saying they never go in one.

The campaign showed how difficult it was for a small group of activists in a relatively small community like Ocean Beach to go up against a large corporate giant, set on keeping its doors open at all costs.  It’s clear now that Starbucks overextended itself around the nation and world – and many wished that the OB store would have been one of the 600 storefronts they had to close.

Yet, the protesters of a decade ago kept alive a true Ocean Beach tradition – resisting outside authority and power. OB’s history of resistance – to the jetty, to apartment developments, to the closing of parks, to corporations like 7-Eleven, Winchell’s Donuts, and Exxon, to the closing of its library – all are part of this rich and colorful tradition.

And without this tradition, Ocean Beach would not be OB.

For all those tourists and college students not in tune with this tradition and history, enjoy your cup of Starbucks. Perhaps some day you’ll learn why the lines inside are short.


Poll Taken By OB Rag – June 16-23, 2011

The campaign against the OB Starbucks began ten years ago this Spring. What is your view or take on the whole thing now?

I supported the boycott then and I still do.

  • 36 votes – 25%

What boycott? What are you talking about?

  • 8 votes – 6%

It’s a free market and I’ll buy their coffee in OB if I want to, and I do.

  • 20 votes -14%

Don’t drink coffee and do not go to Starbucks.

  • 13 votes-9%

The campaign and boycott were irrelevant and/ or a waste of time.

  • 12 votes -8%

I like their coffee and visit the OB Starbucks either on occasion or a lot.

  • 6 votes -4%

I have bought their coffee, but Mama’s Mug makes a better brew1

  • 7 votes -5%

Love coffee, but won’t go to a StarBucks no matter where it’s at1

  • 16 votes -11%

Home Brew!1

  • 15 votes-10%

Starbucks’ coffee is not good tasting, and the coffee pourers are usually pretentious1

  • 10 votes -7%

Total Votes: 143 ; Started: June 16, 2011 and ended June 23, 2011; 1 = Added by a guest



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kenloc July 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm

I think I’d have preferred Urban Outfitters to Wings.
I don’t see how a smog shop is more “community oriented” than Winchells. I’m sure more locals would have used the donutshop.
The people that purchased commercial property on Newport did so to make money in the long run, through property value increase and rising rents. Perhaps we can persuade someone to buy all the property(Warren Buffet?) and give it back to the people,but I doubt it.
Newport looks more like PB everyday.Soon we will have more sushi joints than antique stores and more businesses that serve alcohol than not.Nicks is already here.We have an Irish Pub that has Reggae night (really?) How about OB bar and grill(Sunshine is a small remodel away) or Tsunamis south?Seems to be on the horizon……


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