A firestorm of protest has swept the Hudson River region of New York in response to CVS’s plans to open stores in nearly a dozen village centers. Having saturated strip malls and highways, chain drugstores in recent years have focused increasingly on Main Street locations.
In the Hudson region, CVS has cut deals to lease sites formerly occupied by grocery stores in several village centers. Ten of the sites were Grand Union outlets, a regional grocery chain that recently filed for bankruptcy. Opponents contend CVS’s arrival not only threatens local businesses, but, in most of the villages, will eliminate the only viable location for a supermarket.
In Woodstock, hundreds of residents have packed public meetings and marched through town under banners reading “Community Need, Not Corporate Greed” and “Food, Not Drugs.” More than a third of the town’s population of 6,200 have signed petitions opposing CVS.
“We want CVS to bow out so that we can attract a traditional full service supermarket to the site,” says Woodstock resident Suzanne Parker. The town has no other viable grocery store sites. Residents must now rely on a supermarket 20 minutes away, a tremendous burden for those who are unable or cannot afford to drive.
In a feeble attempt to salvage its image with the community, CVS has offered to lease a portion of the space to a small grocery store—provided that the store agrees not sell any of the same products sold at CVS, which includes most of a supermarket’s high margin items like toiletries, junk food, beer, and soda. “Many of us consider this less than half a loaf,” contends Parker.
In Rhinebeck, a letter to the editor from 9-year-old Emma Alban galvanized opposition to CVS’s plans to open a store in the heart of this 300-year-old village. Alban argued that the chain threatened two long-standing and beloved businesses, the Northern Dutchess Pharmacy and the Stickle 5 and Dime. “Our town has local people who run our stores. The CVS company wouldn’t be local. I don’t want to have people I don’t know running a store in my town,” she wrote. Moreover, Alban noted, if CVS pulled out, the town stood a chance of getting a new grocery store, a use that had for decades anchored the village center.
Alban’s letter, along with two dozen handmade signs she posted in local stores, inspired a group of residents to form Citizens to Preserve Rhinebeck (CPR). They gathered more than 4,500 petition signatures against CVS, distributed lawnsigns that read “I will not shop at CVS,” and arrived at the village board meeting armed with a memo detailing steps the board could take to halt CVS. They also presented the board with several zoning policies culled from the New Rules web site that could protect the village from further chain store development.
Fearful of being sued by the developer and convinced that “all capitalism is good,” as one board member told Alban, the village board chose to ignore community opposition and allow CVS to proceed. CPR now plans a boycott of CVS and hopes that, despite the loss, the campaign has laid the groundwork for new zoning policies. The local Democratic Party may make the issue a centerpiece of its platform in an effort to gain support in this Republican stronghold.
Further south, in the village of Warwick, the It’s Our Town Coalition began organizing rallies against CVS in April and has gathered more than 2,500 petition signatures. “This is about the self-determination of a community,” says the coalition’s co-chair Suzy Hart. Warwick’s village center has largely remained a place that serves basic, everyday needs. Without a grocery store, organizers fear it will drift further into high-end boutiques and shed its role as the center of community life.
Unlike Rhinebeck and Woodstock, Warwick’s village center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Changes to the district, including CVS’s proposal, must undergo a full impact review under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Courts have defined environmental impact under SEQRA quite broadly to include cultural and social impacts. “Our concern is that CVS will destabilize the historic district by forcing out existing businesses like the pharmacy and card shop,” says It’s Our Town co-chair Bill McGrath.
CVS has opted to delay filing the necessary development papers that will trigger SEQRA review. Instead the company is proceeding with $600,000 in improvements to the building’s interior (which does not require an impact review), presumably under the assumption that once it has established a toehold on the site, officials will be reluctant to turn it away.
Other villages fighting CVS stores include Croton, Greenwood Lake, Goshen, Hopewell Junction, and Larchmont in New York, as well as Ridgefield, Connecticut and Teaneck, New Jersey. CVS already has three dozen stores in the region.