The Windsor Terrace Walgreens
Although I have a master’s degree in city planning I generally am interested writing about public finance rather than land use issues. But since my neighborhood is wigged out about the closure of the local Key Foods, and future replacement by a Walgreens, I might as well do the usual and write a post pointing out the unsaid, even if I don’t really feel passionately about the whole thing.
Based on the meetings, petitions, and press coverage, one would think the Windsor Terrace Key Food, a successor to a Bohacks that was built in the early 1950s, was a beloved institution. But lots of people who are complaining now were hardly enthusiastic about the place back when it was open. As someone put it “the only thing worse than Key Food is no Key Food.” The chain has a high-low strategy. For certain items, for the weekly specials, and for basic foodstuffs it was a pretty good deal. For other items and for non-food items it was not. We shopped at Key Food for some things, therefore, and not for others, but over the decades that certainly added up to at least $60,000 spent by my family at that store, in today's money adjusted for inflation. Others presumably spent more. But then the owner, being 80 years old, wanted to retire, and who could be grudge him? Supermarket chains offered to pay over time, but Walgreens offered to pay up front, and that’s what he wanted, I was told. So now what?
Although I’m not all hot and bothered over the issue, I’m a loser here. I expect to be car-free as of the end of August, and would certainly have preferred to continue to have a supermarket around the corner. I purchase some items at the small stores on Prospect Park West, the local “main street,” but not others. The last quarter of milk I bought there, though not expired, was spoiled. The last head of cabbage cost $5.00. The local mini-supermarket is affiliated with Krasdale. Enough said.
On the other hand, I don’t have much interest in boycotting or protesting or signing petitions. My view is if you don’t like Walgreen’s, don’t go there. People have a right to open businesses, after all. While I’ll have probably have to go elsewhere for some food, perhaps Walgreens will be cost competitive for some non-food items I now buy at Costco or Home Depot, such as paper goods and cleaning supplies. Maybe. I plan to give them a chance.
There are, moreover, a couple of vacant/soon to be vacant storefronts on Prospect Park West, an unusual opportunity. If everyone attending meetings and signing petitions were to kick in a $thousand or a few, and they got a decent rent from one of the two landlords, I’d bet it would be possible to recruit an entrepreneur to open a store stocking everything for which Key Food was a better deal than the existing Prospect Park West merchants. In fact, many years ago a gentleman who had been on Community Board 7 did open a food store, which was a wonderful place with good bread and produce. He had opened it for the benefit of his son-in-law, he told me, but his son-in-law got a job as a super with the Housing Authority and moved to the suburbs, and the store closed down.
Meanwhile, I’ve take a couple of bike trips over the Union Market, an expanding local mini-supermarket chain that is up to three locations. They have much of what I might need, but it is too far to walk with a granny cart and their style doesn’t quite fit mine. My daughter, who hasn’t really learned to price shop, says that when she goes there she feels as if she is paying too much, because it seems a little upscale. But the former Funeral Home on Prospect Park West still seems to be available, if Union Market is interested in a fourth location. And if the people who started Union Market could get away with creating a business that is now spreading across the borough, perhaps others with a different style could as well.
Rather than shifting their shopping patterns or trying to attract or create a new store, however, most of those related to local politics have concentrated on demanding that the new Walgreens be something other than a typical Walgreens. That it be, in effect, a Key Food. That idea struck me as rather silly. Until I started researching press reports from around the country for next quarter’s reports in my current job.
It turns out that Walgreens, like many national chains, is experimenting with different formats and product mixes in an attempt to better serve, and profit from, growing urban markets. As Target is with its smaller “City Target” stores, Wal-Mart is with its “Neighborhood Market,” and British supermarket giant Tesco is with its “Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market.” In general, these experiments are taking place in places that are less hostile to new businesses and new ideas.
Well it turns out that Walgreens is experimenting too, though perhaps not in way that would make sense in 11th Avenue and Prospect Avenue, a low traffic site away from mass transit and other stores, in middle-class low-rise Windsor Terrace.
In San Francisco, the chain plans a “fancy Walgreens” for the high traffic Market/Powell Street corridor. “Walgreens stores are always a bit of a lightning rod in San Francisco because there are 68 within the city limits” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “But officials in the pharmacy chain believe that the amenities offered by this store, and the fact that it is just an expansion of an existing location, will mitigate objections. It will feature its own bakery, a custom cosmetics department, fresh produce, a juice and coffee bar, and fine wines and alcohol.” The new store will grow to 18,000 square feet by expanding to a second floor (the former Key Food is about 10,000 on one floor.)
The Chronicle says the company only has two other stores in this format, one in Manhattan and one in Chicago. But Philadelphia is getting one too, in Center City, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal. “The concept is not your run-in-the-mill drugstore, but one like the a high-end flagship locations on the Loop in Chicago and New York’s Wall Street, where the store features a Sushi Station, Juice Market, Starbucks-and-bakery counter, Coca-Cola ‘Freestyle’ machine and organic section with fresh produce, wraps and sandwiches.” This location is replacing a Borders Bookstore that closed when the chain went under.
And one is planned for a new mixed-use building in Washington D.C.’s Chinatown, according to real estate blog Urban Turf. “The big news of the night was the anchor tenant of the 25,000 square-foot retail space: Walgreens. Before the crowd could react, Douglas Development’s Paul Millstein started describing some pretty cool elements of this particular Walgreens, which seems to transcend a simple pharmacy and drugstore. This outpost will have an on-site doctor, fresh and pre-packaged food, a coffee shop, a bakery, and an extended cosmetics section that includes a nail salon and some high-tech makeup visualization stations. Douglas is also hoping to bring Yo Sushi, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, to the space.”
Could this new format work in Windsor Terrace? In a word, no. But if Walgreens is experimenting, perhaps it could create a different format, more like the one I proposed three years ago in post on places that were “food deserts” back then, never knowing I would be living in one now. But given that this is backward-looking New York, if Walgreens wanted to expand to a second floor to offer a larger line of products in Windsor Terrace, would it even be allowed?
Here is what I said in the 2008 post about a possible two-story store for a local commercial street. “Such a store couldn’t be built in NYC because, for one thing, on most local commercial streets only one floor of retail space is permitted, and the total retail space is limited to one times the size of the lot, not double. The exceptions are C4 zones, but these are mapped on the most intensive blocks of the highest traffic retail streets -- where high rents would make a discount store like the one described unprofitable. Current NYC zoning rules, moreover, require the same amount of parking for second story commercial space as for first story space even though second story space (as in our example) generally generates less traffic. As a result in most of the city, even in pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods outside the Manhattan CBD, such a store might not be able to waive the parking requirement.”
So lets go to the zoning resolution and evaluate the Key Food site, using a part of my brain that I generally haven’t used for more than a decade. Much to my surprise, the city did make a couple of changes.
The former Key Food is located in a C1-3 zone, most of regulations for which are determined by the R5B district within which it is mapped. R5B is a zoning district specifically created for Windsor Terrace in 1989, after the city’s recovery from the devastation of the 1970s stirred up locals concerned additional high rise apartments would be built. It is intended to only allow the kind of housing that already exists, with little if any change.
It seems there has been a change in Section 32-421 of the zoning resolution, in the vertical use regulations, that want into effect in February 2011. In buildings without residences located in C1-3 zones, commercial activity is now allowed on two floors not just one floor. This is something I had recommended many years ago, since NYC’s local main streets have no room to expand out and need to expand up. Thank you Mayor Bloomberg. So based on that provision alone, Walgreens is no longer prohibited from adding a second floor with store space. If, however, Walgreens wanted to add doctor’s offices on a second floor, it could not also have store space on that floor.
The building is also allowed to be larger under the floor area ratio regulations. In C1-3, a commercial floor area ratio (the building floor area divided by the lot area) of 1.0 is allowed. Since the former Key Food building covers less than half its lot, a full second floor would still leave the FAR below 1.0. (I had suggested allowing close to 2.0 FAR to allow a two story building with no parking on built out commercial streets with no off street parking). Moreover, a mixed commercial and community facility building is allowed up to 2.0 FAR, meaning multiple stories of, say, physician’s offices could be added on top of the existing Key Food building, other rules permitting.
Parking is another possible constraint. According to Section 36-20, which also went into effect in February 2011, a food store in a C1-3 zone requires one parking space for every 300 square feet (which as I recall is less than in the past). While other retail uses require one per 400. The current parking lot at the former Key Food site has 53 spaces, or enough for 15,900 square feet if Walgreens is classified as a food store and 21,200 if it is classified as a drug store. So adding a second floor, or even building a new two-story building right on the corner that occupies the same size of the lot, is not a problem. Moreover, since it was built before the current zoning resolution was put into effect in 1961, the existing building is grandfathered and requires NO parking. So in an expansion scenario, only an additional second floor would require parking, and the existing parking lot would count toward its requirement.
That leaves the height, yard and setback regulations.
In general, no side yards are required on corner lots in local commercial districts, and corner lots have two side yards rather than a rear year. But a 20 foot side yard is required in locations more than 100 feet from a street (Section 33-261). The existing building is more than 100 feet from 11th Avenue, and that means any added floor would have to be 20 feet from the rear lot line of houses fronting on Sherman Street. Which means the outer wall of any second floor added on top of the existing building could not be in the same places as the existing wall outer wall of the first floor, and the second floor would have to be smaller.
Of course, Walgreens could get around this by just tearing down the existing building and putting up a new two-story building one right on the corner, with a parking lot located further down Prospect Avenue in addition to street parking right next to the store. The existing streetscape next to the former Key Food is awful, particularly on the 11th Avenue side. An ugly chain link fence. A cracked sidewalk used primarily by those who don’t curb their dog. And last choice street parking spaces adjacent to the curb that are little used during the day, and often occupied by standing water.
That leaves the height limit. In R5B it is 30 feet at the front wall, and 33 feet overall, designed to allow the construction of a three story rowhouse just like the ones that are common in the neighborhood. Barely. Is that enough for two full floors of retail? I wouldn’t know. Maybe.
Let’s imagine that Walgreens were to propose a second floor of the existing building, or a new two-story building, with a fuller range of foods and an otherwise expanded product line. Perhaps seeking a variance to loosen up the yard and/or height limit slightly, or perhaps allowing Zipcars to park in the parking lot overnight, combined with a promise to fix the sidewalk.
Would those who are protesting against what they believe is planned now, a typical Walgreens that is mostly a drug store competing with existing local drugstores, be happy? Or would the have meetings and petitions against that too? No doubt Assemblyman Jim Brennan would love any distraction from the ongoing loss of public services at one of the highest overall tax burdens, due to the future selling he and his generation have engaged in. Better to have meetings protesting stores than talk about the budget. Or perhaps those protesting now would be happy, but other people would be unhappy and start protesting.
In any event, those who are concerned with lost commercial services should be happy they are getting a store at all. Just about every vacant lot in the neighborhood has seen a residential building go up over the past 20 years. Across the street from the Key Food site, the local auto repair place and an oil dealer were replaced by housing. It could have happened at the Key Food site, too. In fact my wife joked a few years ago that the housing bubble had to burst soon so we wouldn't lose our supermarket. If a developer makes Walgreens an offer they can’t refuse, the site still might go residential.