Design questions dominate town hall with developers of possible Walgreens on Magazine

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With developers insisting that Walgreens is the most likely tenant of an multi-million dollar proposed renovation of the old American Legion buildling on Magazine Street, many of the nearly 200 people at a Wednesday-night town hall on the project focused their questions on the planned design of its modern, glass-wall facade and large rear parking lot and drive-through.

Many of the details of the nearly $6 million purchase and renovation had already been described by the leaders of three surrounding neighborhoods in a letter last month — with the exception of the new revelation that the store plans to sell beer and wine, in contrast to leaders’ previous expectation that no alcohol would be sold in the new Walgreens.

Walgreens executives have yet to commit to the Magazine Street project (which would include closing their location on Tchoupitoulas), said developer Louis Stirling Properties, but appear to be the tenant most likely to be able to pay the building’s $600,000 lease. Stirling’s plan for the building includes removing its brick front completely and replacing it with a glass wall with steel columns — not unlike nearby Whole Foods — and many residents asked why such a modern design was chosen.

“We’re modern architects,” replied architect Mac Ball of New Orleans. “We’re designing buildings now, not in the 19th century.”

Stirling noted his appreciation for the classic architecture of New Orleans, pointing out that he was the developer who redesigned the old Bultman Funeral Home for Borders on St. Charles Avenue. But the American Legion building’s architecture is not historic to be restored, he said.

“I like old. I love old,” Stirling said, describing his desire to develop buildings that will stand the test of time. “I also know that if I build a fake old one, half the people in this room are going to hate that, too. … I think modern architecture works better in this location than not.”

Stirling was also asked about the idea that because pharmacies with drive-through windows are explicitly mentioned in C-1A zoning, rather than the more general B-2 zoning of the American Legion property, it may not be allowed. Peter Aamodt, a vice president with Stirling, replied that many pharmacies in the city are zoned B-2 and that early conversations with the city planning staff suggest the use would be allowed.

At the audience’s urging, Stirling committed to continue meeting with the neighborhoods as the project develops. The company’s participation in Wednesday night’s town hall drew applause when pointed out several times during the meeting.

Referencing the recent controversy over the Romney Pilates Studio under construction just a block down the street, nearby resident Mark Zelden said he is still undecided on the Walgreens project, but that it should be judged on its own merits. Many Uptown residents were unpleasantly surprised by the shape of the large Romney building when its structure became clear in December, and Zelden urged Stirling not to “hedge” with the residents.

“Please, God forbid that we agree to something and we move forward and we find out that people weren’t straight with us,” Zelden said, to the loudest round of applause for the evening.

To read a recap of the meeting in its entirety, click in the box below for our live coverage from Wednesday night..

17 thoughts on “Design questions dominate town hall with developers of possible Walgreens on Magazine

  1. Thanks for your coverage. First Walgreens will come in offering incredibly inflated rents, then next thing you know, other landlords will seek out national retailers to lease their space too. The city, and particular our City Councilwomen, could stop this they wanted to given that in the zoning code drugstores and drive-throughs are zoned C1A, not B-1 or B-2. Can’t wait til the next election.

    • Brian,

      The city, and particular our City Councilwomen, could stop this they wanted to given that in the zoning code drugstores and drive-throughs are zoned C1A, not B-1 or B-2.

      Probably not. B-1 is at least ambiguous on this point because it allows for general retail. As I’ve noted before, any ambiguities favor the disputed use.Furthermore, the city has long recognized that pharmacies are permitted under B-1, so it would be discriminatory enforcement to prevent Walgreens from moving in.

      • Owen,

        The city’s past administrations of incompetence, indifference, and corruption have enabled innumerable city planning fiascos to the detriment of both the city’s neighborhoods and its people.

        The current administration and populace is set on doing things the right way, i.e., by correcting precedents created by those who ignored the very rules and laws created to protect communities, not in continuing a tradition of apathy.

        If the new ideal of actually following the laws and rules set forth to protect the populace is “discriminatory” to a few minds, so be it.

        • Kristine,

          First of all, none of that matters if the zoning code is unclear. Zoning restricts property rights. Because it restricts a basic liberty, it has to specific.

          Secondly, “discriminatory” enforcement is a problem if, say, the city keeps out this Walgreens, but continues to allow other pharmacies in B-1 zones. Even Walgreens is entitled to equal treatment. If the city wants pharmacies out of B-1 zoned areas, it needs to do so generally, not just in this instance.

          Thirdly, can you explain to me how this distinction that is being raised was “created to protect communities?” B-1 zoning expressly authorizes general retail, gas stations, restaurants, drive-through banks, fast food restaurants, drive-ins, etc., etc., but pharmacies with drive-throughs are supposed to be threatening to the integrity of the neighborhood? That’s ridiculous.

          The whole argument against Walgreens is a comical pretext by those who don’t like chain stores on Magazine.

      • Owen,

        Sadly, I think you are right. However, there could come a time when zoning enforcement is actually done correctly and this sort of issue will be derailed before it even gets started. I place little faith in our elected officials to take on this battle, so we are probably stuck with a Walgreens in our neighborhood. As someone said at a neighborhood meeting, “we are going to kill the goose that gave us the golden egg”.

        If anyone has any bright ideas for how to stop this thing, I’m all ears.

  2. Thanks so much for your coverage on this Robert. I was very interested in tonight’s meeting, and loved being able to come here and read this while at work. 🙂

    • B-1 allows for general retail, which encompasses Walgreens. The onus is on city government to be specific. Any ambiguities favor allowing a particular use of the property.

      I would also note that B-1 allows fast food restaurants, drive-ins, and drive-through banks (under certain regulations). It would be odd if it didn’t allow for a drive-through on a pharmacy.

  3. Just because one zoning category expressly allows a drive-in drugstore does not mean it is prohibited in another. The overall character has to be taken into account.

    What’s so bad about glass and steel? Mr. Ball is right. Building something to look old is usually hated by most. Just look at the Astor Crown Plaza downtown. It’s hideous….and cheaply done. Cheap brick, pre-cast concrete and fiberglass, and the windows in the rooms look like cheap windows on houses built in the 1960s. Look at The Whitney on Tchoupitoulas. It’s hideous. Look at the modern one on Carrollton by St. Andrew’s. It’s beautiful.

    Another case in point. The Homewood Suites by Hilton on Poydras. I guess it was built to look like its neighbor, LePavilion. The Homewood looks so cheap.

    We must preserve our historic architecture. However, there’s room for modern as well.

    • JPK,

      Actually, I think that the Whitney on Tchoupitoulas is very attractive and that the Whitney on Carrolton is severe and boring. Normally, I just don’t like modern architecture. I think it’s pretentious, cheap, and ages poorly. Part of the reason I love uptown is because the houses are old.

      But this is the point, isn’t it? Aesthetic restrictions are dubious because people like different types of architecture and different mixes. I don’t think the city is justified in restricting somebody’s property rights, which are concrete, in favor of aesthetic preferences, which are not.

      I understand maintaining historic integrity in certain neighborhoods, but that’s not really at stake here. The immediate area is already a mix, and the current facade isn’t exactly Victorian. People may not like the proposed design, but “I don’t like it” is not, by itself, a good basis for interfering with somebody else’s property.

  4. I assume one reason Magazine Street merchants are against national retailers is it makes their store hours look absurd and highlights the fact that their clientele is ladies of leisure killing time until carpool at the private schools starts.

    • I have to agree that small shop owners have a hard time convincing me that they want my business when they are only open until 5 or 5:30. I live in Carrollton and the Walgreens is very convenient, but I sympathize with the neighbors here- the traffic is going to get so much worse.

      However, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Walgreens that sold alcohol. Do any in the greater area do that?

  5. This project smacks of a developer’s fabrication… “If you build it, they will come.” I don’t care about the modern facade or the high rents – that’s inevitable progress and capitalism at work – but, as a customer, I have no desire to fight Magazine St. traffic. I’ll be over at CVS on Prytania!

    • Amen. The traffic in that particular few blocks of Magazine is already horrible. A pharmacy, particularly with a drive-through window, will just snarl things up more.

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