The Drugstore Invasion
Chain pharmacies are returning to Downtown America.
They're also destroying it.
Christopher Hawthorne sifts through the rubble.
John Burd stands on the former site of Shamokin,
Pennsylvania's Victoria Theatre with scavenged remnants of the
demolished 1918 beaux-arts landmark.
Photograph: Sylvia Otte
John Burd makes an unlikely champion for historic preservation. The
30-year-old part-time electrician, who lives with his mother in a
nondescript two-story house just outside Shamokin, Pennsylvania, has no
formal design training. Even calling him an architecture buff would be a
Over the summer, though, Burd found himself fighting a lonely battle to
save a cluster of buildings in Shamokin, a sleepy town of about 20,000
residents nestled in central Pennsylvania's once-prosperous coal valley. His
appropriately Goliath-sized opponent was Rite Aid, the quickly expanding
drugstore chain whose corporate headquarters are located about 50 miles
south of Shamokin in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
Early in 1999, Rite Aid announced plans to put up a new store at the
corner of Independence and Diamond Streets, in the heart of Shamokin's
stately, if aging, downtown. To make way for the new building - plus an
attached parking lot for 40 cars - Rite Aid purchased and then demolished
four adjacent commercial buildings on Independence. Most prominent among
them was the 81-year-old Victoria Theatre, a 1,700-seat movie palace
designed by the prolific Pennsylvania architect William H. Lee.
From its perch at the busiest intersection in town, the theater lent
Shamokin a touch of beaux-arts grandeur. It opened to the public in January
1918 with a mixed bill of movies and vaudeville shows. Since 1985, it had
been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For a time it
ranked as the oldest continually operating theater in the country, but went
vacant in the early 1990s and began to deteriorate in the absence of regular
upkeep. By the time Rite Aid bought the theater in 1998, it was in need of
significant repair. "Quite simply, it was falling apart," says Jody Cook, a
Rite Aid spokesperson.
Demolition began on July 8. "It was extremely difficult organizing folks
in Shamokin against Rite Aid," Burd told me. "I mean, we've heard about the
economic prosperity that's going on in the rest of America. But too many
people in this town are living hand-to-mouth to get really riled up about an
old building." For a brief time he had some allies in town, including an ad
hoc group called the Restore the Victoria Theater Committee. But in the end
their scattered efforts were no match for expansionist Rite Aid. Civic
leaders maintain that there was little they could have done to stop the
demolition. "Everyone, including me, hated to see the theater demolished,"
says councilmember R. Craig Rhoades, "but it was private enterprise at work.
The city did not own any of the buildings involved. There was no official
action we could have taken - no zoning, no ordinances in place that would
have prevented it."
"We've heard about the
prosperity in the rest of America. But too many people in this town are
living hand-to-mouth to get riled up about an old building."
Of course, as is often the case, the politicians' inaction was itself a
choice. By not mounting any opposition to Rite Aid, Shamokin officials
betrayed a policy preference, a feeling that the presence of a successful
national chain on Independence Street was ultimately more valuable to
Shamokin than a handful of handsome but empty storefronts.
That calculus is hardly unique to Pennsylvania's coal country. What
happened last summer in Shamokin is part of a national trend in which
chains, particularly drugstores, are returning to the Main Streets of older
American downtowns, territory they once shunned in favor of locations on the
outskirts of cities that offered easy highway access and oceans of parking.
At first, the chain stores' rekindled love affair with Main Street sounds
like nothing but good news for the struggling towns of America - the kind of
shift urban theorists such as the leaders of the Congress for a New Urbanism
have been promoting for years. The cruel twist is that the chains are
generally unwilling to give up the architectural elbow room they grew
accustomed to in their strip mall and suburban locations. Indeed, they are
now building bigger outlets than ever: As they return to the downtowns of
places like Shamokin, they are demanding stores as large as 15,000 square
feet, on-site, above-ground parking for as many as 60 cars, and space for
drive-through pharmacy windows. In the place of older structures whose floor
plans don't suit their strict design criteria, companies are erecting
freestanding, usually one-story buildings meant to stand noticeably aloof
from the surrounding architecture.
The list of notable buildings that have fallen prey to the drugstore
invasion is long. Sixteen "important structures" have been razed in New York
state alone in the past two years to make way for drugstores, according to
the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which called attention to the
trend by including what it calls "The Corner of Main and Main" on its 1999
list of Endangered Historic Places.
Though they are not the only national businesses making a return to Main
Street, drugstores have led the charge. Driven by the HMO boom and the
bottomless pharmaceutical appetites of a rapidly graying population,
drugstores have become the fastest-growing chain business in America,
sprouting up at a pace of three new buildings per day. Though that growth
has finally begun to slow, each of three leading chains - Walgreen, CVS, and
Rite Aid - has been expanding at a rapid clip since the mid-1990s,
essentially doubling its number of stores in the last four or five years.
Rite Aid alone has built more than 1,000 new outlets since 1995, mostly in
the East and Northeast.
As they expand, drug chains are finding the strip mall locations where
they set up shop in the 1970s and 1980s less appealing. Those settings too
often contain a jumble of commercial storefronts that share parking, and the
supermarkets that anchor such developments are opening their own in-house
pharmacies. As a result, drug giants are deciding to build their new stores
at the most trafficked intersections of older downtown commercial centers.
And they are quite picky about exactly where. "If a location doesn't meet
our criteria," Walgreen president Dave Bernauer wrote in the company's 1998
annual report, "we won't take it just to be there. For example, we have a
pin on the map for Paducah, Kentucky. There's only one intersection where we
want to go. We might have to wait several years, but we're not going to
Paducah unless we can be on that corner."
Walgreen has pioneered this "prominent corner" approach with great
success. The company is putting up buildings in these new locations that are
generally larger than their strip mall stores, with average square footage
of about 14,000. Relying on a rigid formula that combines roomier floor
plans with conspicuous downtown locations and parking lots oversized enough
to be invitingly half-empty at even the busiest hour, Walgreen earns the
largest drugstore revenues in the nation - with only the third-most outlets.
The other chains have followed its lead.
"The problem, of course, is that those corners tend to be occupied
already - and occupied by distinctive historic buildings," says Anne
Stillman, author of Better Models for Chain Drugstores, a booklet published
by the National Trust. She suggests that many of the towns that have
welcomed new drugstores are blinded by a desire to rebuild their commercial
cores at any cost. "Certainly towns want economic development; it's only
natural," she says. "But they shouldn't have to forfeit their community
character for it."
Jeffrey Harris, program associate in the Northeast office of the National
Trust, agrees: "What we're saying is that communities need to realize they
have a choice, they can control this growth, and they can take steps to
ensure that these stores come in on [the communities'] terms."
In a sense, the chain-store explosion - and the way some civic leaders
have embraced it - represents a second wave of urban renewal, one that
targets towns and small cities instead of population centers. Then as now,
buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were picked for
demolition because they were said to be decrepit roadblocks in the way of
economic growth. The new architecture may have a more benign face this time
around, but the language used to justify leveling older buildings to revive
struggling neighborhoods hasn't changed in 25 years.
The words of Shamokin's code enforcement officer, Michael Templar, who
oversaw the demolition of the Victoria Theatre, ring like an echo of classic
urban-renewal thinking. "This is a blessing," he told Shamokin's local
paper, the News-Item. "It's sad to see a landmark being torn down, but that
building has been in deplorable condition for quite some time and needs to
be demolished because it has become a health hazard and an eyesore in the
The threat posed by drugstores may be peaking, according to some
observers. Chastened by a glut of drugstores in some regions, falling stock
prices, and the rise of online pharmacies, the leading chains are beginning
to implement slightly more modest expansion plans. But other chains are
ready to pick up the ambitious pace - most notably 24-hour convenience
stores such as Wawa, which is expanding rapidly into older downtown Main
Streets. What's the best way for towns to protect their older buildings? The
key, says Stillman, is to have zoning protections on the books before a
chain decides to build. "It's sometimes possible to obtain a better design
through negotiation, but it absolutely cannot be counted on," she says.
Rite Aid, for one, confirms that it has modified its approach. "Because
of our negotiations with the National Trust," Jody Cook says, "it is now our
policy not to demolish any buildings that are listed on the National
Back in Shamokin, those words are little comfort to Burd, who seems
reluctant to let go of his memories of the Victoria Theatre. When I visited
Pennsylvania at the end of the summer, he drove me out to his house, which
is in Coal Township, just across the Shamokin border, to show me some
architectural remnants he managed to pull from the theater's wreckage. Atop
a plastic picnic table in his backyard, he carefully peeled back two
blankets to reveal a large piece of cracked terra-cotta ornament from the
building's facade. He also showed me shards of the large wooden letters that
once spelled out "Victoria Theatre" across the top of the building.
Talking to Burd, it's impossible not to wonder how this effort wound up
falling to him. What about the town's older residents, those who remember
the theater in its heyday, who saw Ray Bolger or Pablo Casals perform on its
stage, or witnessed the celluloid images of early film stars flickering
across its huge screen? When we returned downtown to the old Victoria
Theatre site, soon to be paved over to create a parking lot, I asked him
that question. "For these older folks," he said, "the town was at its height
when they were young, and it's been slowly downhill ever since. They've seen
so much deterioration around here that they saw the theater as just another
eyesore." His foot poked at the rubble still filling the lot. "But to me
that theater was the nicest thing in this town - probably the nicest thing
that ever will be in this town."
Brooklyn-based Christopher Hawthorne writes frequently about architecture
© 2000 Architecture.