Durable Growth

Walkability under attack

Pedestrian way in downtown Napa

Pedestrian way in downtown Napa

A recent article in CNN Money reviewed Walgreen’s current strategies regarding store locations.  Much of the information was standard corporate-speak for the benefit of stock market investors.  But there was some startling information near the bottom of the article.  It was troubling in its content and in the fact that it was presented in a matter-of-fact manner.

The more mundane portion of the article was about corporate acquisitions recently completed by Walgreen’s.  The acquisitions had resulted in near-duplicate store locations, so closings were pending.  Chain consolidations steal character from our towns at a time when the towns should be aggressively preserving character, so the acquisitions and subsequent closings are disappointing.  Store closings also lengthen walks, inhibiting walkability.  But acquisitions and subsequent closings are part of many corporate business models in the early 21st century.

It’s also disappointing that the average age of the stores being closed is only ten years.  The fact puts a dent in the plans of many communities to rely on sales taxes for long-term financial stability.  But once again, it’s the current model for many corporations.

The new and distressing information is an admission by Walgreen’s consultants about a strategy for new markets.  They acknowledge that the chain sometimes acquires and develops multiple properties within a short distance of each other, especially if the locations are at key intersections and have good visibility.  Walgreen’s pursues this strategy despite the expectation that some of the locations will fail and soon be shuttered.  The argument is that Walgreen’s can afford to take a loss on some new stores if it allows them to secure key locations, to block competitors, and to saturate the marketplace.

I understand the corporate perspective.  But what about the civic perspective?  Walgreen’s strategy of cannibalizing their own stores might not do great harm in a drivable urban setting.  If a particular business is no longer available at one location, car drivers need only continue to the next block or the next community and do their shopping there.

But in a walkable urban setting, that underused building, whether shuttered or leased to a business with a lower sales volume, can become a barrier to walkability.  Faced with a large, unappealing building that fails the walkability standards for interest and usefulness, pedestrians might turn back, ending their shopping.  Or they might drive to destinations on the far side of the barrier.

In a world of subsidized streets, free parking, and underpriced gas, walkability is a delicate plant.  Walgreen’s, in its willingness to monopolize and then to under-utilize key locations, seems eager to stomp on the plant.

This subject relates to another concern about chains.  Many use a distinctive architecture as part of their branding strategy.  The problem is that when they abandon a building, such as when they cannibalize themselves, they leave behind a building that was clearly built for an earlier user and therefore exudes a sense of failure.  Restaurants seem particularly prone to this, with repurposed Denny’s and Taco Bells evident in many towns.  During my years in the Northwest, a restaurant with a giant anchor out front was the often the sign of a failed Sea Galley.

Compared to the restaurant chains, the Walgreen’s architecture isn’t particularly distinctive, but has enough character that a former Walgreen’s can be identified by a discerning eye.  And evidence of a failed Walgreen’s on a key downtown site can be a drag on a community.

This likely isn’t a workable solution, but it’d be good if all chains who insist on distinctive architecture can be required to provide a bond ensuring that all architectural details tied to the chain be removed when the chain ceases use of the building.  The problem is that it’s difficult to bond for an event that may occur a year from now or fifteen years from now.  But the goal is worthwhile and perhaps there are other ways to achieve it.

Until then, perhaps we should stop patronizing chains that shamelessly cannibalize themselves, thereby stealing our walkability.

(Acknowledgment: Walgreen’s is currently engaged in a tussle with the City of Petaluma over a proposed site near Petaluma Valley Hospital.  The primary point of contention is whether Walgreen’s can include a drive-thru pharmacy.  In general, I’m supportive of the Petaluma ban on drive-thrus, agreeing that they eat up space, waste gas, and reduce human interaction.  But if a case can be made for a drive-thru, it would seem to be at a pharmacy where ill people can be saved a long walk through a store.

I didn’t write today about the Walgreen’s anti-walkability strategy to influence the pending Petaluma decision.  It’s only a coincidence that the Walgreen’s consultants chose this particular time to stick their feet in their mouths.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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