A WALGREENS ON EVERY CORNER

The drugstore chain continues to corner the market with potential new stores on the sites of the Parkmoor and the South Side National Bank

Finally, the war on drugstores has reached the graffiti level.

Spray-painted on the brick wall of a Walgreens-in-the-making at Kings-highway and Arsenal Street recently was this string of public statements: "I HATE WALGREENS. TOO MANY WALGREENS. FUCK WALGREENS." Beneath that was the contrasting "I LIKE BOWLING." The juxtaposed sentiments referred to the purchase and demolition of Carriage Bowl, the second-to-last bowling alley in the city ("Bowling for Fewer Dollars," RFT, Jan. 27), to make way for yet another beige-bricked Walgreens with a drive-through pharmacy window. It was the third bowling alley in the city Walgreens replaced.

Though the Carriage Bowl closed June 5 and was flattened shortly thereafter, other development skirmishes loom on the horizon, or should we say on two of the area's busiest corners. It appears as though Walgreens is looking to buy and tear down the Parkmoor Restaurant, which opened at Big Bend and Clayton in 1929. Previously Walgreens expressed a desire, seemingly reciprocated by South Side National Bank, to buy and demolish the bank's nine-story tower at Grand and Gravois.

Neither deal appears to be done. Michael Polzin, a Walgreens spokesman at the corporate offices in Deerfield, Ill., says that each location is "a possibility at this point." He says, "We're interested in the sites, but nothing definite is worked out." Parkmoor's owner is out of town and unavailable for comment.

At both sites, there is an existing Walgreens within a football throw away. So why spend the money to buy the land and business and pay for demolition and construction when, in the case of the Parkmoor site, the store would be moving about 100 yards west? As one local developer tells it, "Walgreens loves corners. They want to go on corners, and that's a great corner. People will come at them from all four directions. It's more convenient."

Polzin concurs. "We compete on our convenience," he says. Within the next year, about 100 of the 450 new store openings will be relocations of other stores, moving them away from strip malls to stand-alone, mostly corner stores. The 350 new stores — added to the existing 2,800 — amount to a 12.5 percent increase. Yes, that's almost one a day.

"Of those, in probably fewer than a dozen will we run into significant opposition," says Polzin. "It could be a variety of things. It could be that people don't want the business that's there to leave, even though that business wants to, or there are some old buildings there that people don't want to see go."

Some conflict is to be expected. Walgreens appears to be an urban, smaller version of Wal-Mart, a massive chain whose manifest-destiny plans are bound to disrupt the status quo. As one developer says, "It's not like Walgreens is going out and building these in cornfields. They're building them in built-up areas. Most corners, even if an area isn't doing that well, the corner still is. Good corners tend to be doing OK even if the area is slightly depressed."

Walgreens' motivation is to make it easier for the growing number of aging geezers, fueled by the baby boomers, to stop by for daily essentials without having to go to the mall or a large supermarket. The drive-through is for the elderly and those parents with children they don't want to release from their seat belts.

The South Side Bank transaction at Grand and Gravois has hit a snag since Ald. Marge Vining (D-15th), after some initial reluctance, acquiesced to constituent complaints and agreed to introduce the necessary aldermanic bill to make the bank tower an historic landmark. Even if that passes, it doesn't guarantee the building won't be demolished — remember the Children's Building downtown, torn down by Clark Enterprises (nee Kiel Center Partners)? — but it complicates the process.

So Walgreens isn't about to pull back. Perhaps Polzin, when responding to a question about why the chain often leases its stores instead of owning them, gave an answer that also explains the primary motivation behind the chain's mad dash to expand. Sayeth Polzin: "It basically comes down to what makes the most financial sense."

 
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