Several years ago the major drugstore chains—CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Eckerd—lost interest in strip malls and began to focus their expansion plans on prominent downtown intersections. As Walgreens CEO Daniel Jorndt told the New York Times, the chain’s preferred location these days is “the corner of Main and Main.”
Often, of course, these intersections are occupied by some of the community’s oldest and most significant buildings. Rather than reuse these structures, chain drugstores have bulldozed numerous downtown blocks to make way for their cookie-cutter outlets:
* An ornate 1906 Beaux Arts style building in DeKalb, Illinois was demolished for a Walgreens.
* A 200-year-old inn in Whitpain, Pennsylvania, was razed for a CVS.
* The historic Depot in Tarboro, North Carolina, was torn down early one Sunday morning while citizens groups were in the middle of negotiations with Eckerd over the its fate.
* In Brownsburg, Indiana, CVS demolished an entire block of historic buildings on the corner of the town’s busiest intersection. One year later, Walgreens leveled the opposite block.
“There’s no way to know how many communities have been affected,” says Cristina Prochilo of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “But we’ve been flooded with phone calls from people asking for help.”
In 1999, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, citing fears that downtowns would be converted to “cut-rate versions of suburban strip malls,” placed the “Corner of Main and Main” on its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Soon after, the Trust reached agreements with the major pharmacy chains to spare buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Unfortunately, many important and eligible structures have not been submitted for inclusion in the Register and remain at risk. Nevertheless, the Trust’s attention to the issue and the resulting publicity have strengthened local campaigns. In Oklahoma City, plans to replace a 1958 Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome with a Walgreens were recently dropped. In Hamilton, Ohio, six historic buildings on Main Street were saved from CVS.
Although citizen protest can succeed, the only way to ensure protection of important structures is through local zoning ordinances that safeguard designated historic districts and establish design standards. Such ordinances are multiplying as communities realize the value of historic buildings.
Some communities are also focusing their economic development efforts on independent pharmacies and enacting ordinances that deter chains, such as formula business restrictions, impact reviews, and limits on the size of retail stores. A 4,000 square foot cap on the size of retail businesses in some San Francisco neighborhoods, for example, keeps out drugstore chains, which are reluctant to build outlets smaller than their standard 14,000 square foot format.
- The National Trust for Historic Preservation can provide model ordinances and guidance for communities seeking to protect historic structures.