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 stretch.

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 community."

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 Register."

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 and design.

Copyright 2000 Architecture.