But those problems were certainly on his mind when, in mid-August,
the 124-year-old Baptist Church and an adjacent residence
on the next block went up for sale and Garrity got wind of
an interest by CVS in the property—for a larger store with
a drive-through that would exit on either Cuyler Street or
Marinello, both residential streets. As the news spread, a
shudder of fear went through the neighborhood association,
and urgent e-mails began to fly.
A similar conversation was happening a little ways uptown
where the Madison Avenue CVS was making overtures to the neighborhood
association about its interest in the currently empty Madison
Theater on its block. The drugstore’s agent, Bill McLaughlin,
made an informal presentation to the Pine Hills Neighborhood
Association about a month and half ago, and though it was
better than hearing about it first from a zoning-hearing notice,
the plan—taking over the entire block to build a 13,000 square-foot
store with a drive-through—was met with what resident Lorenz
Worden called “great disappointment.”
Madison Theater is a great landmark in the area,” he said.
“People still say I live two blocks north of the Madison,
or meet me at the Madison.
. . . Everyone I know is very upset that the building would
be taken down or modified so as not to be used as a theater.”
don’t want to lose an independent theater for residents who
live downtown,” agreed Shannon Hickman, who has become the
Pine Hills Neighborhood Association point person on the issue.
“It’s a nice selling point to be able to walk to the theater,
walk to the grocery store, walk to the pharmacy.
. . . And we don’t want to lose an architecturally unique
building.” The art-deco Madison Theater has been closed for
more than a year.
In neither case has CVS made even an offer on the properties,
but preservationists who’ve followed chain pharmacy expansion
over the last six years say now is none too early for the
drugstores’ neighbors to get organized.
There has been a lot of back-lash in recent years to new Wal-Mart,
Target, and other megastores that locate on acres and acres
of land in less built-up areas. But, says Scott Heyl, president
of the Preservation League of New York State, “the drugstore
problem has been equally problematic, especially in states
like New York with historic downtowns.”
In the late ’90s, the four major drugstore chains—Rite Aid,
CVS, Eckerd and Walgreens—shifted focus from their favored
suburban and strip-mall locations and began to significantly
expand their presence in the heart of downtowns around the
country. They aimed to put their prototype—a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot
freestanding store with lots of parking and a drive-through—at
prominent intersections, which often had historic buildings
on them. The trend prompted an outcry that came to the attention
of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which put
the “Corner of Main and Main” on its list of 11 Most Endangered
Places for 1999. The Trust also launched a specific chain-drugstore
project, which has resulted in an agreement with the chains
not to demolish buildings that are actually on the national
historic register, and many case-by-case negotiations with
Albany was the location of one of the test cases: In 1999,
School 10 on Central Avenue was slated for demolition to make
way for an Eckerd store, when the West Hill Neighborhood Association
and Historic Albany Foundation intervened, offering the developer
alternative site plans that could preserve the school and
allow for the store. “They were going to demolish the school
for a few parking spaces,” says Colleen Ryan of the Preservation
League of New York State. When the developer wasn’t interested
in the alternative site plans, local groups brought in the
Preservation League and the National Trust, who negotiated
with Eckerd corporate leaders. Eckerd eventually withdrew
from the site (Ryan notes that the chain had started to face
downsizing over the couple of years since the proposal was
first made), allowing the Brighter Choice Charter School to
move in instead. School 10 was a success story both in terms
of preventing an inappropriate big box, and in terms of reusing
an abandoned neighborhood school, says Heyl, president of
the Preservation League. Unfortunately, he adds, “there aren’t
a whole lot of cases that have had that much success.”
the league and the trust maintain that if the chains just
break out of their cookie-cutter model, they’ll find that
sensitively occupying historic buildings will actually be
win-win: bringing empty buildings back into use without losing
architectural resources and giving the chains the prominent
locations they seek. “In many of our older cities like Albany,
our main streets have wonderful historic buildings that could
well be used for a replacement commercial enterprise like
a CVS and the upper floor could be used for something else,”
says Marilyn Fenollosa of the trust’s Boston office.
But the issues with the proliferation of chain pharmacies
go beyond saving buildings, and the preservationists are the
first to admit it. “The issue isn’t just one of preservation,
it’s one of neighborhood planning,” says Griffin. “There can
be proposals that would demolish a brand-new building and
the neighborhood would still not want to see it.” The main
concerns are the size and automobile-oriented design of the
model stores, including parking in front and drive-throughs.
CVS’ new store location criteria includes 1.5 to 2 acres and
parking for 75 to 80 vehicles.
The Buckingham Pond/Crestwood Neighborhood Association focused
on these concerns when, in 2000 and 2001, it fought back two
iterations of a proposal to expand a New Scotland Avenue CVS
on a vacant parcel of land at the intersection of New Scotland
and Krumkill Road. “They’re not made for the urban setting,”
says Joe Sullivan, longtime president of the Buckingham Pond/Crestwood
Neighborhood Association. “They’re made for suburban areas,
with a reliance on automobiles. They don’t fit into the street
pattern and the traffic.” The neighborhood association suggested
an empty storefront in the neighborhood’s Crestwood Plaza,
but CVS said it was “too small.” Residents led by Sullivan
fought off the original proposal on the basis of traffic safety
and zoning (the site was mostly zoned for residential).
Sullivan’s sentiments are echoed by Delaware Avenue and Pine
Hills residents, who are proud, and protective, of the pedestrian-oriented
nature of their commercial areas. “They were very amenable
about trying to work with us on some design changes,” says
Shannon Hickman of the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association.
“Bottom line, though, it’s still a big box.” By big box, Hickman
means “one story, red brick, and large.”
In fact, even some of the less urban areas of the region are
reacting similarly to the standard pharmacy design. A Walgreens
proposal for the intersection of Route 155 and Western Avenue
in Guilderland has raised concerns among residents and planning-board
members alike. According to yesterday’s Times Union,
after one planning-board veto, the town is negotiating with
the developer, seeking a store “that looks more like the neighborhood
and less like a box store.”
There’s also the future to consider. Ryan calls chain-drugstore
construction “temporary architecture” that is “often planned
for obsolescence. If the business model changes, it’s easier
for them to move up the block and build another store.”
goes beyond the theater,” says Lorenz Worden, also of the
Pine Hills Neighborhood Association. “It goes to the character
of the city, character of the neighborhood, [which is] a walking
style of neighborhood, and a lot of effort has been put in
by the city to maintain that,” he says, noting the two C1
revitalization efforts that had been carried out by the city
in the vicinity of the Madison Theater, which have included
new lighting, traffic calming, and brick sidewalks.
Lori Harris, the city’s planning commissioner, says for that
very reason the proposal has caused “internal struggle” for
her office. “It’s definitely a dynamic district that has been
created just west of there, so we hate to see the blighted
corner,” she said, but “then there’s just the whole push and
pull of what is suburban versus urban design.” The office
sought out other theaters who might be interested in the building,
she said, but found none. Harris has encouraged CVS to keep
working with the neighborhood, since the proposal currently
doesn’t fit the zoning for the area. “From the perspective
of the city, in the absence of the project going through the
zoning board it would not be allowed,” she said, and when
it comes to the zoning board, “ultimately [residents] will
be the voices that will be heard.”
Here’s the tricky thing: Having a nearby pharmacy is an important
component of an urban, walkable neighborhood, and there are
only a handful of independents left in the Capital Region.
Elizabeth Griffin of Historic Albany acknowledges that there
are some businesses that neighborhoods always react against,
no matter what the design, but “everybody wants drugstores.
They just want them to respect a pedestrian-friendly way of
kind of things make a neighborhood livable,” agrees Sullivan.
don’t want to lose the CVS,” agrees Hickman, noting that for
some areas of Pine Hills, the Madison Avenue CVS is the only
drugstore in walking distance. This makes it particularly
galling that CVS officials, even at this initial stage, have
made noises about closing the store if they can’t expand it
in the way they have envisioned.
Madison and Delaware stores are well-patronized. Garrity and
others on Delaware Avenue say a former manager of the CVS
there even told them it was one of the chain’s most profitable
stores per square foot.
So what’s preventing CVS from going on as it has done with
smaller stores in these neighborhoods? What makes sense to
an independent business with a single profitable store may
not make sense to a publicly traded chain.
It comes down to the mantra of the market: Success is not
enough, you must grow. For a publicly traded company like
CVS, just having steadily profitable stores is not enough.
By SEC regulations, it is required to return maximum value
(short-term) to its investors, and market analysts who make
recommendations to investors caution that not only is growth
essential, but that even a slowing in the rate of growth is
a bad sign. CVS is playing that game aggressively, proudly
touting record sales growth this August of 32.1 percent.
To maintain this kind of growth, everything becomes a matter
of number crunching. First, the chains “tend to mass produce
their stores,” says Eugene Fram, a professor of marketing
at Rochester Institute of Technology. “Once they get started
and have a pattern, the economics dictate that they follow
the same pattern.”
chains’ model is really that of a convenience store, notes
Fram: relying on people who are there anyway to pick up prescriptions,
to add extras for a one-stop shopping experience, from photo
finishing to lawn chairs to food. “They’re right in your face,”
Fram says. “They offer so many services and so many types
of merchandise that it’s hard not to use them on a convenience
basis.” Unlike the suburban megastores, the chain drugstores
rely primarily on convenience, not price, for their attraction.
A recent comparison between a range of identical products
at the Price Chopper and CVS stores on Delaware Avenue showed
the CVS’ prices to be 8 to 30 percent higher.
The tricky bit for the chains comes in the fact that the country
is, as Fram puts it, “clearly overstored,” having gone from
5 square feet of retail per person in 1970 to 20 square feet
now. “When you get into a situation like that, you get into
a Darwinian situation, survival of the fittest,” says Fram.
Individual chain stores, even newly built ones, are closing
even as new ones open. In the Capital Region, failed chain-drugstore
locations include the Goodwill thrift shop at the corner of
Central Avenue and the Lansingburgh location now being considered
for a health-care facility. He says it will probably take
three to five years for it to all shake out, but Walgreens
is currently looking strongest, meaning the Capital Region
should probably brace for an influx of Walgreens.
The beginning of the shakedown was seen in this summer’s acquisition
by CVS and another company of the Eckerd chain. (Eckerd’s
Northeast stores went to the Jean Coutu Group.) “Retail competition
is intense. For these chains to survive, they have to stay
on the cutting edge of having stores in good locations and
meet customer needs,” says Fram.
CVS at least seems to believe that what customers need is
uniformly larger stores with parking and drive-throughs. “The
reason we build large freestanding stores is because our customers
want them; they are convenient and comfortable,” explains
CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis, who declined to comment on specific
expansion proposals, but did note that prescription drive-through
windows don’t generate the same levels of traffic as a restaurant
average size of [CVS’] pharmacy department is about 2,500
square feet, and [the Madison Avenue] store is 5,700 square
feet, so you can see there’s not much left over for the rest
of it,” says McLaughlin. “It calls into question whether they
can adequately serve the community from there.”
But could urban customers want something different? “What
is commercially viable on the outer limits of Western Avenue
and Wolf Road is not necessarily in the inner city,” notes
Even DeAngelis admits that the smaller stores can be profitable
“in a true metropolitan market like New York City. . . . You’re
operating in a different environment.” (Of course, Heyl notes
that when they can, the chains have nonetheless proposed drive-throughs
in New York City.)
At least one local pharmacist is hoping to capitalize on the
gaps left behind by a cookie-cutter approach to find a niche
for a new independent pharmacy. Jagat Patel, a Capital Region
native who recently got his pharmacy license, and a doctorate,
from Albany College of Pharmacy, is planning to open a new
pharmacy in Crestwood Plaza, in the Buckingham Pond/Crestwood
neighborhood. He’s being welcomed with open arms by the neighborhood
association that fought off the New Scotland CVS expansion—indeed,
a neighborhood survey put pharmacy high on the list of businesses
they’d like to see move in.
Patel has had internships at both a chain (Eckerd) and an
independent, and he prefers the flexibility of an independent.
“I’m able to counsel so many more patients so much more thoroughly.
. . . It helps me to know the patients,” he says. “I’m barber
and bartender at the same time.” Patel and his colleagues
at Lincoln Pharmacy, on the corner of Delaware and Morton
avenues, know their customers by name, and will call them
at home for an extended talk if they stopped by when the store
was too busy.
The problem is not with the people who work at the chains
at all, says Patel. It’s the business model. “I could live
off 100 scrips a day, where they need 150, 200 scrips just
to pay their overhead.” Drive-throughs put additional pressure
on pharmacists, who have to divide their attention between
people at the counter and the window, not to mention on the
phone, says Patel, and even when chain pharmacists make an
effort to know their customers, at a large store patients
may see a different pharmacist every time they come in.
Besides closeness with the customers, Patel’s model involves
carefully targeting the community he’s serving. He expects
his clientele at Crestwood to be about 50 percent elderly,
so he’s planning to offer home delivery service, and he has
identified a need in that area for a small grocery market,
so he plans to add that to the front of his pharmacy. “I don’t
have to fight the corporate chain to bring in what the customer
wants,” he notes.
Lincoln Pharmacy, where Patel has cut his pharmacist teeth,
has also narrowly targeted its extra offerings, it its case
to its mostly low-income clientele, doing most of its non-pharmacy
business in Western Union, lottery, phone cards, and cigarettes.
There are some food items, greeting cards, and beauty products
on the shelves, but they are sparse, and last year the store
stopping selling soda and candy in a bid to not be overrun
with children as school let out. But the relationships they
have built with customers remain at the center of the business.
“If you strive to be a community pharmacy, you have to provide
to particular community,” notes Patel.
Heyl would like to see more independents as well. While drugstores
are always an asset to a community, he says, independents
keep the money spent locally, supporting the local economy.
The chain drugstore cookie-cutter is not unbendable. As a
follow-up to its endangered-corner-of-Main-and-Main proclamation,
the National Trust has put out a list of success stories from
around the country where active communities and chains have
arrived at some sort of solution, often a historically and
contextually sensitive reuse of an existing historic building.
“We listen to concerns, and we try to work with the community,”
says CVS’ DeAngelis.
It does happen, but it takes involved communities to work,
says Fenollosa of the National Trust. “There need to be enough
citizens to go to bat,” she says, and they have to offer alternatives.
“It’s not enough to say ‘you can’t do that.’ You have to say
‘Wouldn’t you rather do this?’” and suggest alternatives such
as parking behind a building or a booth in the lot that will
function like a drive-through, she argues. “You need to say
‘Hey, you want to come into our neighborhoods, we want to
use your services, but we’re not going to welcome you if this
is your attitude, if you’re going to slash and burn.’”
Albany’s neighborhoods are certainly willing to go to bat,
but they’re still hoping to find alternative uses for the
Madison Theater and the Baptist Church. Delaware Avenue folks
have been spreading the word about the availability of the
church, mostly to other churches. The Pine Hills Neighborhood
Association is commissioning an engineer to look at the Madison
Theater and give the group an accurate assessment of the condition
of the building (McLaughlin apparently claimed it would cost
more to fix the roof than the building’s worth, something
that Worden says he doubts and the building’s agent Ann McCaffer
strongly disputes), and then they plan to entertain existing
proposals and solicit new ones. There’s definitely other interest
in the building. CVS hasn’t approached her at all, says McCaffer,
but she has had interest from a number of other potential
buyers, from churches to antique stores.
The neighborhood association would prefer to see the theater
remain some sort of performance or arts venue, or if that’s
not possible, some sort of adaptive mixed retail use that
fits within the existing building, says Worden, and they are
working under pressure to try to make that happen. If it doesn’t,
they’ll aim for a compromise: an expanded CVS in a mostly
preserved building. And it could be one of the places where
such a middle ground comes to pass.
don’t want to be building huggers,” says Worden, but if it
the suburban strip-mall style proposal stays on the table
and “CVS say[s] this is our proposal unalterably, there would
be a great deal of response, and it would go beyond Pine Hills.”