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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: November 21, 2003
Byline: Inga Saffron

Changing Skyline: Another drugstore is wrong prescription for Chestnut

An architect's rendering of the proposed Walgreens at 19th and Chestnut Streets. Nice details don't overcome the problems of a retail monoculture.

How many chain-owned drugstores does a five-block stretch of Center City need?

One, you say? Perhaps two?

How many chain-owned drugstores now operate on Chestnut Street between Broad and 19th Streets?

Four. Five, if you count a Rite Aid located a few steps south of Chestnut on Broad Street.

How many chain-owned drugstores could soon occupy this prime residential and retail street if Walgreens succeeds in winning zoning approvals to open a store at 1900-1902 Chestnut St. — eyeball to eyeball with an existing CVS?

Six.

Sure, a national magazine claims that Philadelphians are more weight-challenged than other urbanites, but are we really so decrepit that we can't walk more than a block without hobbling into a drugstore to secure some iron supplements and a prescription of nitroglycerin?

Actually, there are other forces at work here. The big-three drug chains are drawn to Chestnut Street because the surrounding neighborhood is Philadelphia's most densely populated, and the demographics can't be beat. Where else in Philadelphia can you find so many well-off people with AARP memberships? Forget all those aisles of shampoo. Prescription drug sales account for 62 percent of the chains' business.

The Chicago-based Walgreens, which claims to be America's biggest drug chain, has now launched a full assault on the region, with Center City as the bull's-eye in the target. Walgreens has so far opened 32 stores and won approval for 30 more in the area. Those new stores are often sited near its main competitors, Rite Aid and CVS, in mano-a-mano combat.

So, when Walgreens asked Moreland Development to scout a prime Center City location, the Montgomery County company quickly focused on 19th and Chestnut. That intersection is poised midway between Rittenhouse Square's luxury residential towers and Market Street's office high-rises. But just as important, CVS operates a store on the southeast corner. Since opening in 1995, the cash registers there have hardly stopped ringing.

According to the laws of chain-store economics, the site couldn't have been more perfect. Moreland bought two charming art-deco buildings on the southwest corner and immediately started preparing for demolition. Luckily, the same people who have rallied around the endangered Sameric movie palace got wind of the plan. Working with the Preservation Alliance, the Save the Sameric group convinced Moreland to reuse the two 1920s commercial buildings for the new Walgreens.

Moreland's turnaround is certainly commendable. The company, which is owned by Eric S. Seidman and Joshua S. Petersohn, spent more than a year battling Flourtown residents over a Walgreens complex on the site of the historic, 18th-century Black Horse Inn before agreeing to a compromise. Moreland is also partly responsible for the planned construction of an inappropriate parking garage on Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia's most prestigious residential address.

But while bad things are happening on the square, the 1900 block of Chestnut Street — just around the corner — has emerged from its long stupor. Developers have transformed two dilapidated office buildings into luxury apartments, and a fine Italian restaurant has moved in. Even the Sameric got a reprieve when developer Kenneth Goldenberg, who was once in partnership with Moreland, agreed to put demolition of the dazzling art-deco theater on hold. Clear Channel, the giant entertainment company, is considering turning the movie palace into a venue for blockbuster shows such as The Lion King.

Retaining the two companion art-deco buildings makes perfect sense. Moreland's architect, JK Roller, has produced a nice design that fuses the two commercial spaces into one. His proposed rendering even boasts some imaginative metal detailing that mimics, of all things, the Sameric that Goldenberg was once so eager to demolish.

Yet, despite Moreland's good intentions, it's hard to endorse another drugstore on Chestnut Street. The problem with concentrating so many convenience stores in the same place is that it creates a retail monoculture, limiting the kind of consumers attracted to the street. Few other types of retailers can survive in such an environment.

City Council and Mayor Street have acknowledged the problem. Council just passed, and the mayor just signed, a zoning overlay meant to discourage more drugstores on Chestnut Street. It's not clear, however, whether the new zoning will apply to Walgreens, since the company applied for permits before the bill's passage. The Rittenhouse Row merchants' association says it will demand a zoning hearing as soon as possible.

Since beginning its pharmaceutical assault on Philadelphia, Walgreens has demonstrated an unusually strong disregard for its surroundings. It celebrated the opening of its Suburban Station store by covering the beautiful art deco shop windows with blank paper. After much public grumbling, Walgreens replaced the blanks with historical photographs showing lively window displays from the '30s and '40s. So, instead of bothering to dress its cases with real displays, Walgreens now taunts us with idealized memories of past windows.

The Walgreens windows in the Gallery are even worse. Walking past the contemporary photos of smiling people on Market Street, you aren't sure whether the store is under construction, out of business, or open for trade.

Walgreens officials have promised to do better on Chestnut Street. How about choosing another location? That way, we won't need historical photos to remind us what a vital shopping street looks like.