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June 14, 1999

The New York Times, page B1.

Group Says New Drugstores Are a Menace to Main Street


The men (and woman) at the Oswego Elks Lodge are pretty tight-lipped these days.

"We read in the paper all this stuff about Rite Aid, but I can't tell you anything," said Allen Todd, who is on the lodge's board of trustees. "We're doing a study." The woman who answered the phone at the lodge was terse: "The Exalted Ruler is away, and even if he was here, he wouldn't tell you anything."

The Elks are deciding whether to sell their historic 1859 Second Empire-style brick house with mansard roof and tower -- a sort of gentle version of an Addams Family house -- to a buyer that everyone, including the local newspaper, thinks represents the Rite Aid drugstore chain. The mystery buyer has reportedly offered a hefty $1 million.

Todd, despite his wariness, admitted one more thing: the buyer, whoever it is, wants to knock down the old lodge at West Bridge and West Fifth Streets, a major crossroads in town.

"I suppose I wouldn't want to see it torn down," Todd conceded, "but it's old and sure needs a lot of repair."

The Elks lodge is only one of dozens of old and arguably historic buildings in New York State that are threatened with demolition because they happen to be standing in an ideal spot for a drugstore: a site where the four corners meet in a small town, or at an important intersection in a larger city. Nationally, there are hundreds more such buildings.

As the chain drugstores -- giants like Rite Aid, Walgreen and CVS -- continue their march into small and big towns across the country, building boxy cinder-block stores with drive-up windows and plenty of parking, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has decided to do what it can to stop the drugstores' demolition of historic structures.

And so, when the Trust holds a news conference this morning to announce its annual list of the 11 most endangered historic sites, No. 1 will be "the corner of Main and Main" -- the heart of town, often the site of a prominent old bank, department store or theater, or a cluster of houses facing the town green.

Often, preservationists concede, these prominent buildings are vacant -- and not official landmarks.

If the owners are determined to sell, all sides agree, there is not much the preservationists can do, other than whipping up public opinion and lobbying lawmakers to list the buildings on a register of historic places.

The whole drugstore issue really got its start in New York State.

"This is a phenomenon that came to us through the New York experience," Richard Moe, president of the National Trust, said on Friday. "There seems to be an awful lot of activity there." Moe said he applauded the chain stores' move back into the cities' centers, away from far-flung malls -- "it's what we've been working for," he said. But he certainly does not approve of their decision to knock down antique buildings to do it.

Right now, 37 drugstores are planned for major intersections in New York, said Tania Werbizky, the director of technical services for the Preservation League of New York State and the woman leading this particular preservation crusade.

"We've seen the number of drugstore expansions double in the last two years," she said, "and most aim for the key corner downtown."

The communities, she said, "mainly are caught unawares by the magnitude of change construction creates. In mid-size communities, you typically find the post office, the hardware store, maybe the former hotel, often a park or church -- and now this church overlooks an 11,000-square-foot concrete box."

Among the sites at peril are the massive red-brick School 10 in Albany, threatened by Eckerd drugstores; an imposing 1915 Classical Revival bank in Olean (a few blocks from the 1917 Palace Theater, which was demolished last year with four other buildings to build an Eckerd), and some large Colonial Revival houses on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. In Buffalo, a developer who has been widely identified with Rite Aid is suing the city to allow the demolition.

Yet preservationists said there have been victories: in Ballston Spa, near Saratoga, village officials denied a request for a zoning variance and kept Rite Aid from ripping out several buildings in a Victorian neighborhood. In Hornell, in Steuben County, Ms. Werbizky said, another Rite Aid project was thwarted when residents sued to save six buildings proposed for a National Register historic district. The salvation of the 1928 Monroe Theater in Rochester was announced on June 2.

The drugstore chains say they rarely go after genuine landmarks.

"Overall, we don't target historic buildings," said Michael Polzin, a spokesman for Walgreen, which has its headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. "But it's also very important to distinguish between buildings that are truly historic and those that are just old."

"Is this a pre-eminent example of Frank Lloyd Wright," he continued, "or just some 100-year-old falling-down wreck?"

Occasionally, the chain drugstores do reuse old buildings. The problem with rehabilitation, Polzin explained, is that Walgreen and the other chains have strict design guidelines for their stores.

"First, it must be either the right size building or one we can make into the right size -- it must make economic sense," he said, echoing the comments of the spokeswoman for Rite Aid. "It has to be a free-standing building, about 11,000 square feet, and there must be ample space for the drive-through pharmacy window. There should be ample parking in the front and on the side, for around 60 or so cars."

Polzin said the Walgreen chain has several times recycled a large chain grocery store, which are generally 15,000-square-feet cinder-block buildings with open floor space.

The problem with buildings over 50 years old, he said, is that they "aren't built so they can be converted."

When the drugstores do resuscitate an old bank or theater, preservationists applaud them.

On Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens, an enormous limestone Beaux-Arts bank building with an arched entry and Corinthian columns has been recycled by Rite Aid.

And in Corning, N.Y., Eckerd has taken over two adjacent main street buildings that were used by -- guess what? -- a drugstore.

"It's one of the rare successes," Ms. Werbizky said, "and we want to do everything we can to encourage them."

Is being declared Public Enemy No. 1 the way to do it?

Polzin, the spokesman for Walgreen, laughed when the question was posed.

"Just keep this in mind," he replied. "It's the decision of the property owner. Maybe the reason a building is not designated a landmark is because the owner didn't want it.

"And now," he said, "we want that corner!"