Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

CVS and the issue of tearing down historic buildings for one of their new drive throughs: Charles Town, West Virginia

Image: 324 W. Washington Street, Charles Town, West Virginia. Italianate building, c. 1880s. This three story, three bay commercial and residential building has a prominent bracketed cornice and windows with peaked hoods.

Awhile back, I was contacted by some historic preservationists in Charles Town, West Virginia, in their fight against the plans of CVS to tear down 7 historic buildings so that CVS can build one of their large stores with a drive through. I tarried, and in the meantime they lost...

The pharmacy chains prefer to build their standard building, although in center cities, they will locate in extant and historic buildings when they have no other choices.
CVS at Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues NW
CVS at Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues NW, Washington, DC. This one story store at a key subway-served intersection was built in part with $2 million in city tax incentives.

CVS and the other national pharmacy chains (Rite Aid, Walgreens) aren't too favorable to historic buildings, although Walgreens did locate in such a building in Cleveland Park DC. But the issue is that it's in a historic district and the city doesn't allow for demolition very often.
Walgreens in Cleveland Park, DC, in a historic district. Flickr photo by dcstreets. Image of the building in its previous incarnation as Yuenching Palace, a Chinese restaurant.

So CVS is forced to locate in historic buildings in some places in DC. BUT, they will abandon these buildings in favor of driveable locations outside of traditional walkable commercial districts--forcing people to drive to get to stores--if they believe that they can get better locations, even in historic districts like Takoma Park in DC. (In DC, CVS is fond of taking over old movie theaters, and their conversion process makes it almost impossible for the theater use to ever be recaptured, such as with the Ontario Theater building in Adams Morgan, which was eventually abandoned by CVS in favor of a new location.)

The other problem with pharmacy companies are the real estate investment trusts that specialize in drug store property. These companies specialize in "single tenant" buildings, so they are uncomfortable with mixed use/multistory buildings and are a force for cookie cutter buildings and demolition. This CityBizList story, "New Single Tenant REIT STORE Capital Launches with $400M Commitment from Oaktree," discusses one particular company active in that market. (The building housing the CVS store pictured above is owned by a pharmacy REIT.)

The real thing is not just to have the right laws and regulations in place to protect historic buildings, it's also required that elected and appointed officials have willingness to enforce the laws. Without that, communities have nothing, because by definition national chains aren't interested in preserving and strengthening local culture. While it doesn't always happen, if a chain wants a location bad enough, they'll figure out how to work with historic buildings.

From a press release from the Citizens for Downtown Charles Town:

Jefferson Circuit Court Judge David H. Sanders issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against out-of-state developer Rebkee Company and the City of Charles Town’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) on Friday, March 2, that bars the developer or property owner from destroying historic buildings in the downtown area, and bars Charles Town from any further actions on the Certificates of Appropriateness that would allow such building demolitions. This is a court-ordered stop to actions that allow Rebkee to move forward on an ill-suited, suburban-style, CVS box store on one of the most historic main streets in the region. Judge Sanders ordered a full hearing on a preliminary injunction on March 29 that, if granted, would stop all City approvals and demolition activity pending the outcome of a full trial that would determine whether the Charles Town Historic Landmarks Commission violated city laws governing demolition in the historic district.

Last year, the Rebkee Company of Midlothian, Virginia asked the City of Ranson if the company could build a new, suburban-style CVS store with a big parking lot on Ranson’s main street. Ranson city staff attempted to encourage Rebkee to propose a store design that supported Ranson’s plan to develop a more charming, walkable, downtown-style development approach, but Rebkee refused to diverge from its cookie-cutter model. The Ranson City Council voted unanimously against the Rebkee proposal, because Ranson felt that its city could encourage better development without bringing big-box sprawl to its downtown.

Rebkee then proposed to purchase and destroy seven (7) buildings in downtown Charles Town on historic Washington and West Streets to make way for the CVS store. Rebkee acknowledges that CVS will close other stores in Charles Town and Ranson to make way for the new one. The Rebkee plan calls for demolishing six (6) historic buildings that have been designated as contributing structures in two of the Charles Town historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Four of these historic buildings are also located within the Charles Town Historic Overlay Zoning District, a locally designated portion of downtown Charles Town that has very strict regulations regarding building demolitions. Despite many pleas and offers of assistance from citizens, city council members, and West Virginia preservation organizations, including the WV State Historic Preservation Office, Rebkee has not been willing to discuss how to preserve historic structures, or make the new building consistent with the walkable, main street design of the historic district and its architecture. ...

Concerned about this harm to Charles Town’s history and future, many citizens have spoken out against the CVS as proposed, with more than 100 letters written to Mayor Peggy Smith and the City Council asking for a better plan. With Mayor Smith’s support, a majority of city council members voted on February 21 to deny holding any public meeting for citizens to express their opinions about the suitability of the project. That week the City also issued demolition permits to the property owner which would allow him to tear down all the buildings. On March 5, the City Council was scheduled to vote on the elimination of parking on West Washington Street to make way for Rebkee’s driveway. The West Virginia Division of Highways is also poised to issue the final permit allowing the downtown road construction to take place. With these approvals, the Rebkee Company would have no more procedural hurdles to the demolition of this area of downtown Charles Town.

Demolition of Historic buildings in Charles Town, WV for a CVS
( Photo for the Hagerstown Herald-Mail by Richard F. Belisle / March 23, 2012 ) Equipment tears down old buildings in Charles Town, W.Va., to make room for a CVS pharmacy, which is expected to open by late summer. (Note the building pictured at the top of the entry is to the right.)

Unfortunately, since then, the injunction was ended, and demolition of the buildings is underway. See "Old Charles Town buildings being torn down to make way for CVS" from the Hagerstown (MD) Herald-Mail.

From the article:

Heavy equipment is beginning to tear into some old downtown buildings to make room for a new CVS pharmacy following a recent judge’s decision to lift a temporary injunction that halted the work, Jefferson County court records said.

David H. Sanders, 23rd Circuit judge, reversed his March 2 ruling to issue a temporary restraining order against the CVS project. The motion seeking the injunction was filed by Attorney Christopher A. Bailey on behalf of plaintiffs Betsy Wells and Donald Rohel of Charles Town.

The judge, in his new order, ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing and were “unable to demonstrate or allege, either in their pleadings or at the hearing on this matter, that they suffer any unique harm or injury beyond that of a general citizen. The defendants will likely suffer substantial harm if this project is further delayed as a result of a restraining order or injunction.”

When the powers-that-be rollover for such development, citizens have limited recourse, and the long term place value of a community ends up being greatly diminished.

Hopefully there will be consequences for these elected officials come the next election. But that won't bring the buildings back. But it seems amazing that after citizens were deliberately prevented from commenting to the action by city officials, that they would be deemed to not have standing.

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