Norwood might be the latest city to embrace a new Walgreens store by leveling older buildings. But would the benefits justify the social cost?
The city has been on a decade-long redevelopment spree that began not long after General Motors closed its Norwood plant in 1987. Office and retail projects such as Surrey Square, Rookwood Pavilion and, most recently, Rookwood Commons have kept the city's tax base from withering away.
Now the city is thinking about tearing down half a city block for a new Walgreens — just a couple of blocks from an existing Walgreens.
Most of the 75 people who packed the April 10 city council meeting want to preserve the entire city block. Their signs read, "No to Walgreens" and "Restore — Don't Raze — Our Downtown."
The block in question, just south of city hall on Montgomery Road, is the last unaltered traditional city block in downtown Norwood. The 35 parcels house a variety of businesses, including a coffee shop and thrift store, with apartments above.
Attorney Tim Burke, who handles development issues for Norwood, explained the city's technical justification for redevelopment.
When the block was surveyed in April 1999, 65 percent of the land had three or more of the conditions that together legally define blight, Burke said. Last year that number increased to 83 percent.
"I'm very comfortable with the finding of blight on that site," Burke said.
A vote on whether to use eminent domain would need to come later, he said.
But business owners pointed out they hesitated to invest in their property because of rumors, circulating for more than a year, that the city would take the block by eminent domain to make way for Walgreens.
Several residents at the meeting favored the Walgreens proposal, a couple of them arguing Norwood isn't going to lure many businesses to that block, and the city can't afford to turn any away.
"If not Walgreens ... who are you going to get here?" said Sandy Zossen, a 40-year Norwood resident.
Opponents of the proposal offered a more optimistic vision, suggesting a cyber cafe, for example. They peppered Burke and Norwood Development Director Dettmer with questions. There are pockets of vacant land throughout Norwood. Has the city considered using a vacant site for the new Walgreens? Has the city tried to redevelop the existing buildings? Has the city calculated the net loss or gain in jobs and taxes? And what would happen to the old Walgreens?
Dettmer and Burke had few answers. Mayor Joe Hochbein was absent.
Norwood is one of many cities across the county to face a decision on whether to make room for a chain drug store on its main street, according to Cristina Prochilo, a field representative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has 250,000 members nationwide.
Drug store expansion picked up in the 1990s as the major chains — Walgreens, CVS and Rite-Aid — stopped putting stores in strip malls and started building stand-alone stores with drive-thru windows. The chain stores also wanted high visibility locations, which often means the town center. They can afford these sites because of booming profits from the drug industry.
Ongoing conversations with the chains led them to agree not to try to demolish buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, Prochilo says, but that's as far as the compromise has progressed.
How strong is opposition to the new Walgreens in Norwood? That's hard to say. Using postcards, Planning Director Susan Roschke asked 6,800 Norwood residents if they "would like to see the Sherman Avenue and Montgomery Road intersection redeveloped with a new Walgreens store." Seventeen percent responded to the questionnaire. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents checked yes, and 31 percent said no.
After a heated debate, city council voted 5-4 to send the ordinance to the Committee as a Whole for further discussion. The committee has tentatively scheduled a May 7 meeting.
BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.