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An Urban Walgreen’s in Suburbia

October 30, 2005 Planning & Design, Travel 8 Comments


Yes, Walgreen’s has built a decent new store in an up to the sidewalk urban fashion in an otherwise suburban area. But don’t look for this in the St. Louis region. I’m in Seattle on a combination business trip and brief vacation. Yesterday we spotted this new Walgreen’s in an area of NW Seattle (map)

The first thing you can see is the typical Walgreen’s window where a true second floor should exist. But under that is a sign & entrance for a place that does nails. What gives?

Walgreen’s is known for seeking high-profile corner locations but they don’t necessarily want a pedestrian corner entrance. Instead they want a parking lot and adjacent entrance. This is a good compromise design.

Seattle has requirements to build more urban even in areas that in the past had been allowed to have typical suburban development — far setbacks behind a sea of parking. Seattle has realized people will walk if you make the path interesting and convenient.


So the street corner, at far left in this picture, has a smaller business but gives Walgreen’s the visibility they desire. The other end of the building relates well to both the sidewalk and their small, but adjacent, parking lot.

Behind the Walgreen’s is local grocery store QFC with a large parking lot. This new Walgreen’s gives a more urban feel to the corner that it previously lacked. Between the Walgreen’s and QFC parking lot is a narrow drive-thru lane to serve the pharmacy.

Also of note is the red bike rack. The placement near the entrance is excellent. I would have preferred an “inverted-u” type rack that allows the bike to be supported in two places. This wave type rack is sexier which is why it gets selected. This rack is designed to hold three bikes — the middle bike entering from the opposite side. Whomever specified this rack failed to understand that point as the user would have to trek their bike through the planting area to do so. As a result, this is a essentially two-bike rack. An inverted-u rack would also hold two bikes and would have been cheaper. In the space they have they could have done two inverted-u racks for a total of four spaces — probably for the same cost as this single rack that really only hold two. I’m glad to see racks becoming more common but more thought needs to go into their selection and placement.

Back to the Walgreen’s…

Why don’t we have such urban thinking in the St. Louis region?

Basically it boils down to elected officials that are either ignorant of what it takes to make a more urban and walkable community or too lazy/spineless to require developers to do something different than their auto centric sprawl prototypes. At the same time these elected officials are trying to deal issue of meeting air quality compliance and population loss. Solutions are at hand but it requires doing business differently.

I recently had a St. Louis Alderman tell me, as we were discussing developments, “if you knew all the information” I’d have a different view. The additional information was tidbits like the store in question only has two standard models which the alderman accepted at face value. The “if you were in my shoes” answers just don’t cut it. It is an easy way out. Finally the real sentiment came out that in the past we haven’t had developers lined up to do projects in the city. So a developer expresses an interest in a project so we accept whatever it is they want to build because that is their standard model.

The building anything you want attitude is not limited to officials in the city. Municipalities in St. Louis County are tripping over each other to give developers incentives in a fight for sales tax dollars that are regionally flat. Brilliant.

The buildings we are constructing today will be with us for at least 20 years. That alone is a sad statement as we should be building for much longer life spans. But even a short 20 more years of parking dominated development is too long. Our region will fall behind other regions that are actively embracing pedestrian-friendly designs. Our region needs to attract more people, hedge our bets against rising fuel costs and make real efforts to reduce auto use that leads to lower air quality.

We cannot continue to have elected officials that simply accept the developers first sales pitch. We can demand better in our community.

– Steve


Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. Joe Frank says:

    The entry doorway to the Walgreens at 3631 Gravois Avenue just west of South Grand is right on the Gravois sidewalk.

    But that doesn’t make it an urban store. It still has a ridiculously large parking lot, and required the permanent closure of Grace Avenue as well as the alley between Grace and South Grand.

    Not to mention the seven houses and four commercial buildings sacrificed to make way for the store.

    Is there any way to get the city to change its attitude toward Walgreens site plans and design standards? I doubt it. Walgreens stores are huge sales-tax revenue generators. And since they’ve pushed most competitors out of businesses, they are a necessary neighborhood store for residents.

    I just wonder how many of these stupid boxes we’ll be stuck with. Will they try to put one in downtown, I wonder? Or a new site in the Gate District, now that the Grand/Park site has been ruled out? We’ll see.

  2. Jim Zavist says:

    I’l trade a Walgreen’s on every corner for a 7-11 on every corner, which seems to be the answer in greater Denver, Colorado.

  3. Brian says:

    Any alderman can ask anything of Walgreen’s, for as flawed as our City’s planning and zoning process truly is, a drive-thru requires a conditional use permit. This added step then triggers added review even on the most commercially zoned properties. And when you need a conditional use permit, you trigger a public hearing, thereby requiring community buy-in on your proposal, forcing developers to share plans with neighborhood groups for their support.

    Our City also lacks any architectural review of facades or planned elevations except in historic districts or where within so many feet of a City park. Still, the Walgreen’s at Arsenal/Kingshighway (Tower Grove Park) and even Gravois/Hampton (Willmore Park) prove how gutless our City officials are in enforcing what few planning review tools we already have on the books to prevent anti-urban development.

  4. Dustin says:

    Jim Zavist said, “I’l trade a Walgreen’s on every corner for a 7-11 on every corner, which seems to be the answer in greater Denver, Colorado.”

    That WAS the case here. During the 80’s 7-11 tried to “corner” the market in the city. There are many left but anectdotally I would say there are just as many more that are either vacant or converted to other uses. I greatly suspect that companies like Walgreen’s locate on every corner to kill any competition and once they have over-saturated the market they start closing stores leaving the city and neighborhoods to deal with the blight. In 10 years how many of these ugly-ass empty buildings are we gonna have to look at?

    7-11 at least has a smaller footprint and therefore requires less destruction of our urban fabric.

  5. Jeremy says:

    What about the Walgreens at the corner of Clayton and Big Bend? Granted, not too many people in that area are walking in the first place, but it seems like they didnt do a bad job of building up to the street while still getting the parking lot they need.

  6. Jim Zavist says:

    I may be more charitable toward Walgreen’s because I see them filling the role of the late, lamented corner grocery, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Could their architecture be better, more varied and more contextual? Sure! Does their focus on drive-thru pharmicies make it harder to hold a hard street edge? Of course. Are they trying to make money, ie.e being competetive? Yes. Still, they are better than the little 7-11 box set back on a big square of asphalt, with or without gas pumps, with or without a functioning 7-11. As Steve points out, an urban environment is messy, and while we need to push companies, especially larger ones, for design excellence everywhere, it’s more of a risk putting a new Walgreen’s on Olive east of I-170 than it is to drop one on the corner of Highway K and Highway N in O’Fallon, and they should be encouraged to keep a presence in the more challenging urban areas!

  7. Walgreens is trying to get a store with drive-through built on a busy corner at the intersection of two historic neighborhoods This would require razing a much-beloved local diner, a 1920s-era Spanish Colonial Fire Station and a 1950s-era gas station.

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