Disfunctional Ward Development Exploited by CVS to Demolish Landmark Building in St. Louis

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AAA_Toby Weiss_1The recent rezoning of 3930 McPherson Ave from C (Multiple Family Residential) to H (Area Commercial) by the St. Louis City Planning Commission likely means the demolition of the landmark ovular Mid-Century Modern American Automobile Association headquarters at 3915 Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End for a CVS Pharmacy location.

If this story seems familiar, it is. CVS attempted to demolish several buildings at 4100-4120 Lindell two years ago for a drive-through pharmacy. The plan for their standalone cookie-cutter building, just 700 feet from an existing Walgreens, was met with requests from the neighbors to place the drive through at the rear of the building and to design the facade to more closely match the existing urban context. These basic requests proved too onerous for CVS and the developer pulled out.

It’s now apparent that developers Gershman Brown Crowley Inc. spent the intervening months attempting to convince other owners along Lindell to sell. In the end, they succeeded with AAA near Vandeventer. This was a shrewd choice since the north side of Lindell between Newstead and Vandeventer is currently in the 18th ward. Although 18th Ward Alderman Terry Kennedy until recently held a seat on the Cultural Resources Office’s Preservation Board, he has steadfastly refused to allow demolition review and preservation within his own fiefdom (pdf) and has systematically severed his ward from adjacent neighborhoods.

This situation should make several concepts clear.

AAA_ward map1. Regulating development on a ward basis is deranged
In the best analogy, doing development ward-by ward is like doing non-smoking table-by-table. As this example proves, a project can be made acceptable without addressing objectionable elements simply by moving it to the other side of a street. The project will negatively impact the streetscape and the neighborhood south of Lindell, but switching political jurisdictions takes away the standing of impacted residents to be a productive part of the process. Furthermore, the scattershot nature of the system discourages competent aldermanic leadership. There is no incentive for an Alderman to force a developer to reuse an existing building if the developer has the option to realize the existing plan feet away in another ward, where that alderman will claim credit for moving retail jobs to his or her ward.

AAA_CVS
{sought after CVS location in 17th Ward center-left, AAA in 18th Ward center-right}

2. Our aldermanic leaders typically ignore existing regulations
The parcel being considered for this development is listed as a Specialty Mixed Use area under the City’s own Strategic Landuse Plan. A SMUA “ is intended [for] a unique mix of uses [to] be preserved and developed”. In short, not a drive-through, single-use drugstore. Blithely ignoring established planning renders it irrelevant. If exceptions are given to demolish a unique building for the most bland and trite building man can construct, why does a plan exist?

3. Power lies with those least competent at effectively regulating development
While City of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay used his position to issue a litmus test that demolition of a “distinctive element of our built environment” is only justified by replacement “by a new good at least its equal”, Alderman Kennedy set his sights much lower. He  assured the committee that his neighborhood review group “will push for a more urban-friendly design, similar to the negotiations that led a nearby Walgreens to improve its building design”. Yet, when Robert Antrim, Vice President with the developer, was questioned about reusing the existing building he stated CVS has "a prototype building that they like to build." Since CVS has already relocated their proposal once it is probable that they will build the standard box and unlikely that Alderman Kennedy will demand anything more than a sidewalk or fence.

Lindell Walgreens
{Lindell Walgreen's cited as example of an improved urban design}

4. City of St. Louis zoning is not the problem
Even if we are to ignore the Strategic Landuse Plan that the city adopted in 2005, the existing zoning is very favorable. It is legally possible to build the drugstore without demolishing the AAA building. The developer wishes to build a 13,000sf CVS with a small detached outbuilding to house the AAA offices. Based on the zoning code:

"Retail stores within floor area of more than 3,000 square feet shall provide parking space sufficient to accommodate one motor car for each 700 square feet of floor area in excess of 3,000 square feet which is actually used for the selling of merchandise."  (§26.40.040.A ) For 12,000 sf of retail space (assuming 1,000sf for bathrooms, stockroom, and offices) zoning would require only 13 parking spaces. In addition, §26.40.040.H requires only a single 10’x25’ loading space.

There is enough space on the existing 48,000sf site (which includes the 40-space parking lot and 10-bay Enterprise Rent-A-Car garage) to build the desired CVS without touching the AAA building. A 13,000sf store on that site would yield a Floor Area Ratio of 0.3 which is still extremely low given that Lindell is a significant transit corridor.

AAA, CVS on Lindell

5. A myopic ward focus creates shortsighted decisions that will quickly backfire
CVS’s interest in the Lindell site stems from a strategy to put Walgreen’s out of business. Once they accomplish that the neighborhood will be left with a vacant 16,000sf former Walgreen’s store. If the resulting profits do not meet CVS’s projections they will then close their new 13,000sf store leaving two vacant properties. The net result of the ongoing wars between CVS, Walgreens and RiteAid throughout the country has been a glut of poorly-built, badly designed, and difficult to repurpose stores. In some areas there are vacant drug stores on three out of four corners.

CWE_CVSCVS Site Plan

CVS rendering
{4100 Lindell and a rendering of CVS once sought in the 17th Ward}

If you want to take a look at what the City of St. Louis's historic urban corridor is becoming, check out the tour of placeless, souless St. Clair Shores, Michigan. They have it all – Walgreens, CVS and Rite-Aid:

*photo of AAA building and 4100 Lindell by Toby Weiss. Please visit her excellent B.E.L.T. blog!

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