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Chain Drugstores on Main Street 

12-09-2015 17:35

Preservationists from New York to Maine use the word invasion to describe the trend. In the late 1990s large corporate ownership and acquisitions have increasingly dominated the retail climate of America, and nowhere is this more evident than in the proliferation of chain drugstores across the country. Walgreen, CVS, Rite Aid, Eckerd, and others are pursuing aggressive expansion policies, planning to open hundreds of new stores by the year 2000. Having largely supplanted independently owned drugstores, corporate chains are imposing large, single-story, characterless architecture and oversize parking lots on America’s beloved Main Streets, bulldozing historic buildings that get in the way.

The threat is pervasive and escalating at an alarming rate. In New York state alone some 30 communities are battling inappropriate drugstore development. Yet, with the right defenses, it can be controlled. Winning the fight requires a strong arsenal of land-use regulations and design review authorities, and vigilant citizen activists to help enforce them.


Chain drugstores are spreading in response to a growing demand. Rite Aid`s 1997 annual report cites three factors driving fast-paced growth in the drugstore industry: the aging of the U.S. population, “pharmaceuticals extending life expectancy,” and the rise of managed health care. As Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) reduce prescription drug reimbursement rates to record lows, only the biggest chains with the largest market share can compete for their business.

The industry leader is Walgreen, with more than $13 billion in sales in fiscal 1997. Walgreen achieved the biggest sales volume despite operating significantly fewer stores than the others—about 2,400 stores for Walgreen, compared to about 3,900 each for CVS and Rite Aid (as of February 1998).

Walgreen stresses customer convenience as the major component of its corporate philosophy. It favors freestanding stores, as opposed to strip shopping-center locations. The chain pioneered the use of drive-through pharmacy windows, an innovation quickly emulated by the rest of the industry. Other strategies, highlighted in the 1997 annual report, include locating stores at “major intersections,” with “ample parking.” “Easy in-and-out access” is termed “mandatory.” Clearly “convenience” means convenience for drivers, not pedestrians.

Meanwhile, the type of drugstore that preservationists find so destructive to community character has a demonstrated track record as a revenue enhancer for the chains. Rite Aid’s annual report claims that the larger, freestanding stores are “generating a first-year volume of greater than $3 million compared with a $2 million average of older smaller stores.” Walgreen’s new store prototype occupies 14,000 square feet. Of the 251 new units opened in 1997, 71 were relocations of existing stores to larger spaces. About half of Walgreen’s stores are this larger, freestanding model, compared to 17 percent of the CVS chain.

With Walgreen’s revenues as evidence, it is no wonder that both CVS and Rite Aid have their own policy of boosting sales by expanding store size. Rite Aid believes that “to survive and prosper in this business, you have to get bigger,” as its annual report states. The effects of this policy are being felt throughout the country as drugstore chains build large, freestanding stores surrounded by seas of asphalt on prominent downtown corners, regardless of what already stands there. As a result, America’s traditional Main Streets are in danger of being turned into strip malls.


In DeKalb, Ill., the construction of a new chain drugstore on the small city’s main street proved devastating to downtown character and heartbreaking for local preservationists. Located 60 miles west of Chicago, with a population of about 35,000, DeKalb has a four-block-long downtown made up primarily of 19th-century commercial buildings. The crossroad of Lincoln Highway and First Street forms a prominent intersection at the entrance to the traditional central business district.

In 1994 a developer with demolition in mind tried to acquire one corner after another of this important intersection. His efforts were thwarted twice, but when he approached the owner of the former post office, he found an interested seller.

Completed in 1906, the Beaux Arts-style post office was unusually imposing for a small city. A Special Act of Congress had allocated $100,000 for the project, thanks to the influence of leading citizen Isaac Ellwood, one of the inventors of barbed wire. When the US Postal Service moved out in 1960, it sold the building for one dollar to the DeKalb school district for administrative offices. In the 1970s the building was auctioned into private hands.

In 1994 the developer, promising economic development, secured roughly half a million dollars in incentives from the DeKalb mayor and city council. The incentives included tax relief and, more importantly, the sale for $1 of a municipal parking lot behind the post office. A Walgreen’s drugstore was the site’s intended occupant.

James Hovis and Militsa Samardzija, two DeKalb residents with a love for old buildings, championed an effort to save the post office. With other concerned residents they formed the Citizens Downtown Improvement Council (CDIC). Samardzija garnered enough high-profile media attention to cause Walgreen’s, which is headquartered in Illinois, to withdraw publicly from the project.

But without legal grounds to block demolition, their efforts proved vain. Today, a 13,000-square-foot, single-story Walgreen’s drugstore clad in synthetic stucco stands at the rear of the site. An asphalt parking lot for 62 cars fronts Lincoln Highway. The 1906 landmark that for almost 90 years welcomed shoppers to main street is gone forever.


While towns like DeKalb are losing their most architecturally significant buildings to chain drugstore development, having the right planning and zoning regulations in place does offer hope.

In 1996 a Rite Aid drugstore was built within the boundaries of a local historic district on a site formerly occupied by a gas station in Charleston, S.C. The new drugstore did not resemble any of the other Rite Aids in greater Charleston, nor anywhere else for that matter. The building is more attractive, and better suited to its setting than the typical model, because the design was subject to approval by the city’s Board of Architectural Review.

The building’s appearance suggests the traditional brick warehouse construction methods that endure nearby. The use of brick, rather than synthetic stucco, would not alone have been enough to integrate the building with its setting. The addition of architectural details, including six tall windows across the center of the facade flanked by pilaster-embellished gables, further distinguishes it from the usual prototype. Recessed arches in the solid brick wall recall the detailing of 19th-century industrial buildings.

The Charleston Rite Aid also was sited more appropriately than the typical model. The city board insisted that the building anchor the existing corner. Instead of the typical wrap-around parking lot, which disrupts the streetscape and diminishes a pedestrian-friendly environment, parking is on one side, away from the corner. In traditional fashion, the store abuts the sidewalk.

The architect for the project, Tommy Smith of Smith Gerber Associates, called Rite Aid “a good corporate partner.” But without architectural review requirements, he said, the building would have looked quite different. Large chains find that building stores from standard prototypes is efficient and increases corporate recognition, he explained. It is, therefore, a “tough sell” to convince a corporation to deviate from standard practice. “It slows up the process,” he said. But when local ordinances require design approval, the chains comply, and the result is something “specific to the area and to local taste.”

In Brookline, Mass. an approximately 11,000-square-foot new Walgreen’s was designed to be compatible with the existing commercial architecture. From the street the brick-veneer storefront appears to be two-stories high. Its windows are much larger than in the typical model, and it abuts the sidewalk, maintaining the streetscape. What made the difference? In Brookline Village, retail stores larger than 5,000 square feet must obtain a special use permit and meet with the local design advisory team before receiving town approvals.

The drugstore chains even have reused historic buildings, primarily in urban areas, when the right protections have been in place. In Philadelphia the ornate 1903 building constructed for Jacob Reed’s Sons, a venerable men’s clothier, had stood vacant for years. Designed by William Price, an architect noted for his Atlantic City hotels and Chicago freight terminal, the building boasted a grand arched entryway, elaborately carved stone trim, and classically inspired columns. The surrounding block had suffered from the effects of a serious fire that destroyed a nearby high-rise. When CVS proposed to take over the Jacob Reed’s building, it was welcomed by the community as a promising start toward reinvestment in the block.

Certain legal protections ensured that CVS adapted the building without altering the exterior. As a designated structure in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, any proposed alterations were subject to approval by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. What’s more, the building is located in a commercial area subject to Center City Commercial Controls, zoning regulations that require discount drugstore chains, fast food operations, and the like to apply for certificates of use. A certificate is easier to obtain than a zoning variance, but it triggers a public hearing process.

The existence of a strong neighborhood organization also benefited the building. The Center City Residents monitor all proposals to ensure that new uses are compatible with the tone of an upscale retail environment. In this case, the Center City Residents won a concession in the design of the CVS sign. In 1995 the Philadelphia Historical Commission approved an internally illuminated plastic sign to hang from the entry arch. The Center City Residents felt strongly that the sign was inappropriate, and at the public hearing they managed to defeat it.

“It is essential to watch all potential impacts, from the effect on historic architecture to the effect on traffic,” said Judith Eden, a leader of the group. The fact that a watchdog group exists at all wins more than half the battle for appropriate development, in her view. “If they know that you’re there,” she said, the developers “begin to self-restrict. It’s not just the law that creates the effect, it’s the monitoring.”

Drugstore chains are at least investing in Main Streets and bringing business downtown. Often they are among the first to invest in depressed commercial districts. If they can be prevailed upon to maintain the historic character of the areas they invest in, it could be a boon for communities across the country.

Publication Date: September/October 1998

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Author(s):Anne Stillman