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Urban Walgreens of Seattle

March 10, 2009 Big Box, Travel 18 Comments

Walgreens stores in the St. Louis area are no different than ones in Dallas or Tulsa. Big & boring. Their designs are the same pretty much everywhere. Except in cities where the typical auto-centric doesn’t cut it.

In October 2005 I did two posts about interesting Walgreens stores in suburban Seattle. One in the South suburbs was very standard except for the coffee shop that was built out at the street corner of the property (view post) . That Walgreens I first spotted on a 2002 visit. In 2005 I spotted another I liked built up to the public sidewalk (view post).

Jump forward 3-1/2 years to yesterday and I’ve found two more interesting atypical Walgreens stores. First up is the Walgreens going into a vacant 1950 modern bank building. When I was here in ’05 we walked around this tasteful modern building, appreciating its massing and detailing. The branch, originally a SeaFirst and later a Bank of America, closed in 2006.

The area around this mid-century modern gem is rapidly developing. The developer of adjacent apartments had bought the building a secured a local historic designation for the structure. It is nice to see Walgreens reuse an existing structure. See story from the Seattle Weekly.

In the Capital Hill neighborhood another Walgreens is already open at the corner of Broadway and Pine (map). This time the Walgreens is in the base of a new multi-story building. No huge parking lot, no drive-thru.

Corner pedestrian entrance, street trees, and bike parking distinguish this Walgreens.

This new building is across the street from a community college.

The overhead wires are for the electrified bus system.

I’ve been visiting Seattle now for 15 years. I’ve seen many areas urbanize in that time. It just doesn’t happen . Seattle has deliberately changed zoning on certain corridors to allow and encourage dense mixed use properties such as the above. Developers can begin to see how building more building on a small site can give them a greater overall return. The first step is on the city to change the zoning for an entire street rather than waiting for a developer to possibly ask for a zoning change to do something more urban. As a city we must be proactive to get more urban development.


Currently there are "18 comments" on this Article:

  1. Kris7 says:

    There is something romantic about owning a business at street level and living directly above it..though upstairs from this Seattle Walgreens looks like offices probably.

    Yes, mixed use! It could only get better if it were a locally owned pharmacy (with a soda fountain).

    Working hard at http://www.sccworlds.com

  2. Jerry says:

    In the last picture I see power lines over the street, but no rails in the street. Does Seattle have electric buses?

  3. JJSons says:

    It’s interesting that places like Cleveland and Indianapolis both have urban Walgreen’s/CVS in their CBD. On this subject St. Louis really seems to be missing out. However, I can’t think of a current Walgreens in St. Louis that “should be” more urban. Big Bend/Hanley – big traffic intersection with little pedestrian traffic – some for Vandeventer/Kingshighway and Arsenal/Kingshighway. I think downtown should clearly have one – then maybe The Loop.

  4. south City says:

    ^^^ How about the Walgreens at Hampton & Chippewa as well as the one at Chippewa & Kingshighway, and the one at Grand & Gravois, all are heavily used by pedestrians

  5. Jimmy Z says:

    Seattle is not St. Louis. It’s physically constrained, between multiple bodies of water and mountains to the east. It can’t sprawl onto cheap farmland. People really want to be there. The basic rule of supply and demand kicks in – supply is constrained, demand is high, and the only alternatives are increased density and higher values. Zoning can shape what’s built, but it can’t create the demand for it. We already have zoning that allows higher, traditional densities along our commercial corridors in the city. We even have more than a few buildings with vacant retail space, like the bank structure you noted. The “problem” here isn’t our zoning, it’s the local economy, where even (formerly?) prime commercial parcels can be purchased for a song, and there’s no reason not to just drop a generic box in the middle of a parking lot. Our biggest challenge is watching our population shrink by more than half, from 850,000 to 350,000, over fifty years – there’s simply no need to build to our former densities, and retailers can economically provide the convenient parking that many of their customers desire/demand in 2009 (and didn’t in 1930).
    “Developers can begin to see how building more building on a small site can give them a greater overall return.” Um, no – building a quality multi-story building with covered parking costs significantly more per square foot than building a crappy box in the middle of an asphalt parking lot. IF everyone’s paying top dollar for dirt and selling one-bedroom condos for $750,000, like they are in the hot parts of Seattle, then sure, density works. But if the only likely tenants can’t or won’t pay more than $450 a month, then the numbers don’t work and the crappy box starts to make more (the only?) sense financially. The same holds true on the commercial side – here, the Lincoln-Mercury dealer on South Kingshighway is being replaced by a rent-to-own facility, the Wendy’s a block away remains vacant, and the Walgreens two blocks further south proudly replaces a multi-story department store (and that’s one of our better retail areas outside of downtown!) . . .
    And, yes, Seattle has electric buses – there’s one in the background of the middle picture.

  6. Aragornman says:

    Jimmy Z, I only partially agree with your statement that the problem in the City of St. Louis is not our zoning. Because our zoning code is so incredibley old and out of date, we have been spared the “new and better” zoning codes that mandate huge setbacks and curb cuts, etc. The zoning code we have is a progressive zoning code, which means it is relatively simple and is designed to let the market work (as you point out that it should). The drawback to the zoning code is that their are no incentives to encourage good urban form and transit-oriented development (rather than the suburban-style auto-oriented development that we so often see happening in the City. It is true that the relative inexpensiveness of land in the City encourages poor development types. As I see it, there are three ways that our community can encourage good development:
    1) Invest in alternative forms of transportation. Seattle has electric buses and a good public transit system. They also invest heavily in sidewalks and bicycle improvements. This makes it feasible (and attractive) for people to live in an urban setting. Private investment will follow.
    2) As a community (both City government and local residents) insist on good design. Well-designed communities usually have a cadre of civic leaders, urban planners, and local busy-bodies that show up to zoning meetings and press for the development community to build good quality projects.
    3) Encourage job creation. Our earnings tax, political shennanigans, system of aldermanic courtesy, crime, lack of large parcels, and poor public infrastructure discourage business to remain/move to the City. Many of these issues are already being addressed, but our poor reputation does us a disservice.

  7. Insider says:

    I gotta tell ya. I was in Seattle over the summer and was NOT impressed at all. I stayed at the Westin and their downtown was dirty, litter all over the place, they had three times as many homeless people laying on the sidewalks and walking around, and aside from the market and the needle there was nothing to do.

    There is always so much talk about Seattle being a real metropolis, I just didnt see it!!

    However, on the same trip I spent about a week in Vancouver and that was completely awesome!! I expected Seattle to have an urban area like Vancouver and was very disappointed.

  8. john says:

    Which comes first, smart zoning or density? No city is constrained by geographical barriers that can’t be overcome by road designs unless it’s on an island. Deciding to have a parking lot and designing its size are primarily a function of the studies conducted in determining the customer base. In the StL region, the car culture dominates design.
    – –
    I knew the StL region years ago when drug stores were on corners and had no parking lots. No problem until chains like Walgreens gained market share and the public became increasingly auto dependent. Drug store customers saved money on chain store products only to have their transportation expenses increased. We have thus created a city that requires auto travel to get cheaper products and have persuaded consumers to transfer product costs to their transportation budgets, by design. Until we change our zoning philosophy and improve our transportation options, we are stuck with depreciating real estate values and large parking lots.

  9. Steve Patterson says:

    Just a quick test.

  10. Steve Patterson says:

    A second, different comment. The first comment went through, but gave me the error. When I refreshed, it said it was a duplicate! Thanks for your patience.

  11. Lara says:

    Trying again.

  12. Jimmy Z says:

    In urban areas, you have three kinds of real estate environments, declining, stable or appreciating. In areas where values are going up (appreciating) the high cost of raw land, with or without an existing structure, drives higher densities. In stable areas, existing structures typically get replaced with like structures, should the need occur – if a building is damaged or destroyed in a fire, something similar will replace it, the value of the land justifies the cost of a new structure or significant repairs to an existing one. But in declining areas (which, unfortunately, typifies too much of the city), the cost of replacement can’t be justified – you either end up with less density/crappier construction or you end up with a vacant lot. It simply makes more sense/is cheaper to move a few doors or a few blocks away than it is to rebuild to previous densities.
    Walgreens (to use the example du jour) does what it does because it works for them financially. Could they move into a building without a parking lot and a drive-thru pharmacy, in St. Louis? Sure, but why would they? Especially if they can do exactly what they want a few blocks away? Blame bad zoning, a lack of design review, a weak urban planning department and/or aldermanic courtesy, but there’s only one reason Walgreens moved a block away in Hampton Village (Hampton & Chippewa) – they were able to build what they wanted and make more money. And if they couldn’t do it on that corner, they certainly would’ve found another location and sympathetic ears at most levels of local government . . .

  13. john w. says:

    …but, with more proper zoning that created the desired results, then Walgreen’s would then need to understand that their profit motive isn’t everything that the community is about. It’s about the entirety of the community, and if they feel that they cannot locate a business somewhere because of what some feel are intrusive or prohibitive governmental measures, then let them locate elsewhere. Funny… they deemed their locations worthy of building stores based upon the demography of the community, yet a zoning code restructured to steer development in a more sustainable and desirable way for our future would deter them? Please… There is a freakin’ Walgreen’s on just about any corner they can find, and believe me, the corporate retail model is ‘cover the earth’, and they’ll find themselves to be perfectly adjustable when a community holds them to a standard that ishould be enforced.
    Suburban sprawl has overtaken our built environments from coast to coast, and this scourge is directly attributable to ‘letting the market decide what happens’ attitudes toward our communities. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more lazy then sitting on one’s libertarian ass and watching the worship of the almighty Dollar lay to waste our once great urban centers. Some continue to insist that the market will decide what physical form our community should take, and I’ll just say that it already has- and look at the disastrous results. It would certainly make more sense, from the perspective of a free-market capitalist libertarian, to replace subjective beauty, meaning, and historic significance with a 120,000 square foot Super Wal-Mart with Christmas parking volume. That new Wal-Mart would undoubtedly generate mind-blowing multitudes more revenue for, certainly the business owner, but also the community as a result of sales taxes, but what a fucked up place we make our cities when we defer our sensibilities to cold, numeric logic. When we trade our inviting city character for crumbling concrete, rusting rebar, and 200 foot wide roadways choked with the fumes of vehicle exhaust but nary a square inch of safety to the pedestrian who needs to ped, and all for the lure of the almighty dollar, then what’s the point of living in a civil community?

  14. john says:

    Got that exactly right. The car culture inevitably debauches neighborhoods and devalues everyday life… so a growing majority can enjoy their dependencies and insist that government (via the public’s tax payments) continue to subsidize these poor designs. Even prices of products in stores are raised to pay for the “free parking”, even if you walk or cycle.

  15. john w. says:

    National retailers lobbying municipalities for TIFs, or outright using them as extortion leverage is a glaring example of the seemingly bottomless greed, and that’s all before these retailers severely downgrade the development possibilities for our future by paving away the land’s natural topography and engorging the storm sewers with run-off.

  16. Jimmy Z says:

    Zoning codes typically only define four things, acceptable uses, maximum building sizes, minimum setbacks and minimum parking requirements, aka “uses by right” – stay within those limits and the city will have to approve any plans you bring in. In areas where things are booming, like many parts of Seattle or Portland, zoning is a crude, but somewhat-effective, planning tool. In areas like much of St. Louis, where land is relatively inexpensive and our elected officials are desperate to see anything that generates sales taxes, zoning becomes much more of a suggestion than a rule.
    A couple of decades ago, Denver invested a lot of effort in creating the PRV (Platte River Valley) zone district, where they anticipated much of what urbanists hold dear – mixed-use structures, walkable streets, shared parking, etc., etc. The area was ripe for development, previously being occupied by a mix of small industrial uses and rail yards (much like St. Louis). So what’s there today? The Pepsi Center, Six Flags Elitch Gardens and surface parking lots!
    Bottom line, money talks and politicians listen. The old cliche, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, holds true. When you have developers who want to build something that current zoning doesn’t allow, and no developers wanting to build what the current zoning does allow, guess what, the zoning WILL get changed. Our current zoning does not prohibit any developer from building more-urban projects. It’s their buyers and their tenants demanding convenient parking and drive-thru’s (and voting with their wallets) that is pushing the suburban, autocentric model.
    Out, way out, at 141 & Clayton, Five Guys Hamburgers have opened their first local location in the shopping center where the new Whole Foods and Target are. They’re in a building that faces Clayton and the big parking lot is behind it, so you have to walk around the building and (Qdoba) to get in their “front” door – there is no direct patron access from the parking lot. It’ll be interesting to see how well they do over the long haul. Much like urban stores who lose traffic when surface streets become pedestrian malls, this location assumes (and bets) that people will walk more than a few feet to get to the “right” side of the building.
    Finally, I also looked at Walgreen’s website to find their nearest location that would “serve” downtown St. Louis – it’s at Page & Grand! Why are they not downtown? Like they are in Seattle and Denver and Chicago? Because they can’t get a drive-thru and/or free parking? I doubt it – there are both plenty of surface parking lots to build on and vacant buildings that could be easily remodelled to meet their needs. I’m guessing it’s simple economics. They haven’t figured out that the residential side of downtown has grown to the point where a store likely would be viable, but they have watched the employment base shrink and they are certainly aware of our crime statistics. Is it a “fair” conclusion? I wouldn’t know, but it likely is the “safe” one, for them. Which gets to part two – do our downtown residents actually want a Walgreens? Or would they prefer a more local option, like Schnuck’s? Hmmmm . . . .

  17. john w. says:

    Jim, apparently you’d never been to the St. Louis Centre before it closed.

  18. Jimmy Z says:



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