UPDATED: Locals call the newly announced Lawrenceville Starbucks location a "betrayal" | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

UPDATED: Locals call the newly announced Lawrenceville Starbucks location a "betrayal"

Update March 7 at 1:00 p.m.: Pittsburgh City Paper has heard from Starbucks and Starbucks Workers United regarding the announcement of a Lawrenceville location. Their responses have been added to the end of this article.
Update March 8 at 2:30 p.m.: Part of a statement from Milhaus has likewise been added.

Lawrenceville is getting a Starbucks, and not everyone is happy about it.

A LinkedIn announcement late last week confirmed that Milhaus, the Indianapolis-based developer of Lower Lawrenceville's mixed-use development Arsenal 201, had confirmed Starbucks as a tenant in Arsenal 201's corner parcel facing 40th St. On Mar. 5, community organization Lawrenceville United (LU) took to social media to decry the deal as a "direct violation of commitments" Milhaus had previously made to the Lawrenceville community.

"It was very disappointing to hear this news secondhand," LU executive director Dave Breingan tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

He says LU and community members had pushed for Milhaus to maintain the neighborhood's locally owned character — the developer verbally did so during well-attended community meetings held during the planning and construction of the hulking apartment and retail complex. LU has since urged locals to make their voices heard by contacting Milhaus and supporting local unionizing Starbucks workers in their efforts.

"In their own words, they said 'the project team plans on courting local retail and restaurant options and not big box or national chains,'" Breingan says. "There were no written or binding agreements about this, unfortunately."

The voicemail inbox to Milhaus' publicly listed phone number was full when City Paper called, and multiple emailed requests for comment to the developer went unanswered as of press time.

On March 8, Milhaus responded to CP, saying the developer would continue to work with LU and touting the fact that 80% of Arsenal 201's retail space is occupied by local businesses. "Our team has worked diligently over the last seven years to identify high-quality tenants to fill our retail space and we believe that the addition of Starbucks will complement, not detract from the commercial fabric of Lawrenceville. We will continue to work closely with Lawrenceville United and the Lawrenceville Corporation to support their shared vision for fostering a unique and thriving community," Milhaus vice-president of development Brad Vogelsmeier told CP via email.

The outcry represents the latest negative response to an out-of-state developer leasing to out-of-state stores and chains during a time of rising rents. In 2021, McCaffery Interests irked many when they courted, then ghosted, Bloomfield-based White Whale Bookstore, bringing in national chain Posman Books instead. Locals see similarities in Milhaus' latest move.

click to enlarge UPDATED: Locals call the newly announced Lawrenceville Starbucks location a "betrayal" (2)
CP Photo: Joie Knouse
View of the 201 Arsenal Condominiums from the TRYP Hotel on 40th Street
Sarah Walsh, owner of Upper Lawrenceville coffeehouse Caffè d'Amore, tells CP "it's kind of like going on a date with somebody and being like, 'Hey, I said you can kiss me on the cheek,' and then they go for something else."

Walsh says LU and the Lawrenceville Corporation have been indispensable partners for businesses like hers, fostering a Butler St. business landscape that's over 70% locally owned and 30% women-owned. "I can't imagine burning a bridge like that," Walsh says.

Walsh says developers aren't inherently bad — Illinois-based Albion Residential has similar plans for an empty stretch of Butler St. across from Caffè d'Amore — but says it's important that these developers cultivate trust with locals. "We want more people in the neighborhood and more people supporting the businesses in the neighborhood," she tells CP, "but it's all about how you do it."

Milhaus, for one, initially reached out to Walsh and other area business owners but then failed to follow up, she says.

"It would set up the developers in the neighborhood for a much better reception for the businesses that they're leasing to if they listen, and they actually care about what the neighborhood says," Walsh tells CP. She reminds Lawrenceville residents and others to "vote with your dollars" to prevent local businesses from getting muscled out.

Breingan says what the neighborhood needs is not a Starbucks, but groceries.

"An affordable grocery store has long been a priority from the community and was specifically requested in the community process around this particular development," he tells CP. "A use that's accessible and serves our local neighbors would be ideal."

Meanwhile, he's frustrated by the Starbucks lease. "We have always tried to be reasonable," he says, "which is why adding a mega-chain like Starbucks that competes with many of our long-time independent cafés is such a betrayal."

For its part, the Seattle-based coffee giant contacted CP after the original publication of this article through Sam Jefferies of Starbucks media relations.

Jefferies said, "We look forward to joining and contributing to the Lawrenceville community beginning in fall 2024. It is a thriving community that allows all types of businesses to exist together, and customers will choose the coffee experience that is best for them. We know our customers are passionate about coffee as well as their local businesses, and we believe independent stores and small chains can continue to grow and thrive along with Starbucks. It is all in service of elevating specialty coffee — which is a good thing for everyone."

Asked about neighborhood interest in attracting a grocer, Jefferies said Starbucks wouldn't comment on areas outside of its business, but that the company "plan[s] to use this space to make connections with customers over coffee." Jefferies also said Starbucks has formed positive relationships with local nonprofits and will likewise extend opportunities to "nominate a neighborhood nonprofit" for grant opportunities to its Lawrenceville location.

Pittsburgh-area Starbucks locations have been the scene of a flurry of union activity — workers at the Sixth St. store in Downtown just announced a successful union vote on Mar. 6. The company has tentatively agreed to contracts with more than 50 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and denies that it engages in union-busting behaviors.

CP also reached out to Starbucks Workers United for this article. Through a representative, the union declined to comment, citing the ongoing strike at the Post-Gazette and Block Communications, Inc.'s ownership of Pittsburgh City Paper.

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