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A Dose of Suburbia

Jagat Patel (r) and a colleague at Lincoln Pharmacy

Chain drugstores may be smaller than Wal-Marts, but Albany’s neighborhoods say their plans are still too big—–––and too suburban—for urban centers

By Miriam Axel-Lute
Photos by Shannon DeCelle

The Delaware Avenue CVS store doesn’t exactly jump out at you, but neither does it blend into its surrounding neighborhood of early 20th-century homes and storefronts; the well-used building on the corner of Delaware and Marinello Terrace is gray and boxy with no eye-level windows and a single row of parking alongside the building’s side and another along the back.

The store’s relationship with the community has been rocky, even though it is well-patronized. Marinello resident Tim Garrity, a local real-estate agent, notes that there have been ongoing problems with snow clearing, rude delivery people, and absence of support for local organizations. Garrity, a former CVS employee, notes that all of these problems are specific to this CVS, and go directly against CVS corporate policy.

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.”

“The 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.”

“We 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 varying success.

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.”

Still, 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.”

“It 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 life.”

“Those kind of things make a neighborhood livable,” agrees Sullivan.

“We 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.

The 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.”

The 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.

And 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 drive-through.

“The 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 Worden.

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.

“We 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.”

maxel-lute@metroland.net


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