Controversy Brews in Downtown Annapolis

The influx of chain stores worries Steve Duffy, City Dock coffee shops' owner.
The influx of chain stores worries Steve Duffy, City Dock coffee shops' owner. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The King of France Tavern opened in 1784, when Annapolis served as the nation's capital, and has hosted generations of lawmakers ever since. Legend has it that a secret tunnel still leads from the tavern's wine cellar to the State House, an ancient escape route for heads of state.

Now the old tavern is about to be reinvented: as the Annapolis area's sixth Starbucks.

The prospect of bringing the ubiquitous coffee retailer to the basement of the Maryland Inn, which has operated continuously at Church Circle since 1780, has some residents and town stewards dismayed.

"You think about that room, and the very historic ambience, and all the people who have been in that room over the years," Mayor Ellen Moyer said.

Moyer said the wedge-shaped Georgian landmark deserves better. And the thought of another name-brand merchant in downtown Annapolis -- in a signature 18th-century structure, no less -- rankles some other locals, who are quick to point out that the city is already well provisioned with caffeine. The new Starbucks would join at least six other coffeehouses -- one of them a Starbucks -- in the historic district.

But Starbucks has influential supporters in town, including the president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, who say the tavern could suffer far worse indignities than housing a coffee shop.

"It strikes me as kind of a historically appropriate use for the place," said Greg Stiverson, the foundation president. "Coffeehouses were very popular in Annapolis and other 18th-century cities, both here and in England. They were a gathering place, and that's basically what this Starbucks is planned to be."

Starbucks, he said, "seems much more appropriate than, say, a mini-mart."

Of course, Annapolitans of the 18th century could hardly have imagined a coffeehouse on the scale of Starbucks, a national chain with more stores -- about 7,000 in the United States alone, according to a company fact sheet -- than Annapolis had citizens in 1780.

City leaders don't actually have much say about who rents the empty space, which was occupied by the old tavern until 2003. The choice is the inn owners', so long as they conform to the city code, zoning rules and architectural concerns that govern the historic district.

But the unease many Annapolitans harbor toward corporate brands in their downtown has come to the fore.

Any alteration to the exterior of a building in the historic district must go before the town's seven-member Historic Preservation Commission, a group that is notoriously picky about such things as corporate logos and garish displays. With Starbucks, concern centers on the circular sign, 36 inches in diameter, that would hang outside the inn. It would bear the company's familiar green-and-black logo, a beacon to the Starbucks faithful.

The sign "is something you see in shopping centers, not on historic buildings," said Stiverson, whose preservation group advises the commission on downtown projects. The commission is expected to take up the Starbucks proposal in mid-January.

In notes submitted to the historic commission, consulting architect C. Richard Bierce declared the sign "too large" and quite out of proportion with the "scale and refinement" of the architectural setting. Inn owners may be asked to shrink the sign or replace it with something more historically fitting.

Steve Duffy, whose competing mini-chain of City Dock coffeehouses is among the best-known businesses in town, said he would hate for tourists to be greeted by the Starbucks logo as they pass the inn and start down Duke of Gloucester Street toward the center of town. He fears the city, with its chain stores, is nearing a tipping point into civic anonymity.

"How does it sound to hear, 'Come to Annapolis, visit the oldest working statehouse in the country, and visit one of our six Starbucks?' " he asked. "If we become a mall with our offerings, we're hosed."

Larry and Stacey Garland, sipping drinks at Duffy's flagship City Dock store on a recent afternoon, seem to share the prevailing attitude among Annapolitans. They have no aversion to Starbucks but don't intend to buy coffee there, and they expect that the new shop will be patronized mostly by out-of-towners unfamiliar with the local grinds.

"I like Starbucks," said Larry Garland, who works in Annapolis and lives in nearby Davidsonville. "But when I come downtown, I don't like all the chain stores. You come down here, you like to do business with people that you know."

Both the inn owners and the Starbucks company say they intend to preserve the exposed brick and stone walls, wooden rafters and low-slung brick archway that give the shuttered King of France an ambience reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Named for the French monarch Louis XVI, the King of France opened a few years after construction finished on the Maryland Inn. Long a hangout for legislators, the tavern later evolved into an esteemed jazz club, frequented and once co-owned by the late guitarist Charlie Byrd.

"When we open a Starbucks store," said company spokesman Nick Davis, "we are respectful of the existing [features] and unique character of the buildings, and this location is no exception."

Another Starbucks is already located at the City Dock, a few blocks away. Ben and Jerry's, White House Black Market and Subway also have spots in the historic corridor, where high rents and cramped spaces deter many chains. The Gap, Banana Republic and Burger King have come and gone.

No one drove the stores away. But no one seems to miss them much, either.

"When you come down here," said Stacey Garland, "you expect to find specialty stores, not the places you'd find in the mall."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company