Don't destroy downtowns over passing retail trends
The borough of Lewistown, like so many other small towns in Pennsylvania, is selling its soul to a drugstore chain.
About 30 miles south of State College, Lewistown has all the attributes of an old Central Pennsylvania railroad and market town. Buildings dating to the 1800s still stand throughout the town. A colonnaded Greek Revival courthouse built in 1843 dominates a large town square. The square itself is centered on a 64-foot-tall column of granite — an imposing monument to soldiers of the Civil War.
Nearby, Third Street is lined with big churches, some dating to the Victorian era. Just across the Juniata River, the oldest remaining train station built by the Pennsylvania Railroad is still in use daily.
Yet, demolition is expected to begin soon on a nearly block-long string of mostly 19th-century storefronts on Market Street, starting barely 60 feet away from that beautiful town square. Market Street is the town's busiest, and nine buildings facing it will be torn down to provide a full acre of land in the center of the city for a new CVS drugstore and its parking lots.
This is a travesty that has been, and continues to be, repeated in other towns, where consistent historic and urban fabric is being rent for what may or may not be a lasting phase in retail.
In Ellwood City, demolition started in January for yet another new CVS store. What's being lost there, about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, is a large 97-year-old Gothic Revival stone church plus nearby Arts & Crafts-era houses and an apartment building. CVS will build in Ellwood across the street from a relatively new Rite Aid. The two competing drive-in drugstores and their parking lots are just two short blocks from the once-dense retail center of that town.
Why is this parching of the past happening so readily? Why the creation of parking lot deserts in the middle of historic towns? The unhappy answer is that leadership in both towns is sadly out of date.
In some respects, Lewistown and Ellwood City are alike. They each suffered significant losses in the 1970s and '80s when longstanding industries were shuttered. The population of each is now about 8,000, down in both places about 40 percent from their peak.
Both towns have seen once-lively downtown shopping decline dramatically. Vacant storefronts became common. So, to many residents of both towns, CVS comes as a savior. There has been little controversy in either town over the change, as zoning boards and town councils have cleared the way for redevelopment.
But there are other solutions out there that neither town has grasped. The loss of industry, population and local merchants is hardly unique in this region. And by using a combination of zoning laws, preservation laws and purposefully inspired community development corporations, other small towns have managed to bring their main streets back to life.
Beaver, Bradford, Oil City and Titusville, to name a handful, stand out, as all have kept their downtowns attractive and used. Beaver has encouraged both professional offices and active uses such as restaurants. Oil City has created incentives to bring artists and artisans into its downtown. Bradford has formed a strong community development corporation that does detailed feasibility studies on old buildings and purposefully seeks out new users.
Good streets are a little like rooms, most often presenting a pleasing aspect when buildings, like the nine historic ones in Lewistown, are at a consistent scale and there are no breaks between them. In Lewistown, the new CVS will be set back from the street, with parking between the store and the street. In this sense, the coherent visual structure of the street, a key aesthetic value, will be lost.
At the same time, parking lots are not places you like to walk by, so some of the pedestrian nature of the street is compromised, as well.
Neither Lewistown nor Ellwood City exerted its zoning muscle to push CVS to do more. Towns that have done so have gotten CVS and its like-minded competitors, Walgreens and Rite Aid, to preserve the looks of streets, either by moving into renovated older buildings or putting new buildings right at the street line with entrances off the sidewalks. In some cases, new drugstores have even had second stories to keep the feel of the street consistent.
And besides all that, it is a fool's bargain to sacrifice historic town assets for what may well prove to be a passing fad in retail. In Ellwood City, what happens if one of the two new drive-in drugstores wins out in the competition? One side of the street will likely be abandoned.
In Lewistown, CVS already has a store on Market Street, but it's less than half the size of the planned new 12,000-square-foot store, and it does not have a drive-thru window. Will pharmacies continue to pursue this bigger, drive-thru model, or will pill-dispensing become an entirely mail-order business, making today's model out of date? If so, will what remains of the pharmacies become equivalents of the old five-and-dime stores that every town used to have? Or will they just close?
Retailing is constantly changing. It's not wise to destroy for it what could be permanent town assets.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.