How CVS Conned Sebastopol
by John Eder, former Sebastopol City Council Member
Part 1 of 5
I served on the Sebastopol City Council from 2012 to 2016, during the period when many of the events described in this account took place. I have attempted to present this information in the most accurate, complete and factual manner possible.
Longs Drugs was founded in Oakland in 1938. After growing to 521 stores, they were acquired by CVS in 2008. Longs had a store in the Redwood Marketplace in Sebastopol for many years prior to their acquisition. The store is owned separately from the remainder of the shopping center. CVS independently owned the store at this location, and has most likely either sold or leased it at this point.
Business Model Differences
Most of Longs Drugs locations were in shopping centers or downtown business districts, averaging around 30,000 square feet, and did not include drive through windows. CVS, on the other hand, has concentrated on creating new locations at heavily-travelled, high traffic count intersections, averaging around 15,000 square feet, with drive through windows being a standard feature. As a result, CVS is in the process of relocating as many of these shopping center stores as they can to busy corners, most being equipped with drive through windows.
As a sidebar, the largest competitor that CVS faces nationally is Walgreens. They have been battling it out with each other through the construction of new stores at high-visibility locations, often across the street or close by to one another. Currently, Walgreens is in the process of seeking approval to merge with Rite Aid, who has an existing store two blocks from the new CVS store in downtown Sebastopol. Thus, our downtown may be the next battleground for these warring corporations.
CVS Comes to Sebastopol
In early 2010, Armstrong Development (on behalf of CVS) submitted an application to the City of Sebastopol to develop a project consisting of a CVS drugstore (17,000 sq. ft.) and a Chase bank (3,800 sq. ft.) on the former two and a half acre Pellini Chevrolet site, which had been dormant since the end of 2008. The first proposal was stunning in its inappropriateness for Sebastopol. It was a generic, “as-seen-anywhere” suburban strip mall eyesore.
Only 15% of the site was designated for buildings, with the balance paved over for parking, far in excess of City requirements (this is still the case). In a nod to our expressed concern over concealing parking areas, the CVS store was oriented so that the parking was behind it, with blank stucco walls and the drive through window facing Screamin’ Mimi’s. It was apparent that the applicant had likely never spent much (if any) time here, getting a sense of our town. To the credit of the City, CVS was essentially told, “Nice try- come back with an acceptable proposal.”
Government Process 101
In my opinion, Sebastopol has a really disjointed process for project approval. The Planning Commission looks at projects from a land use perspective, separately and, sometimes, prior to, the Design Review Board, which looks at projects from a design/aesthetics point of view. Rarely are the two merged. The Planning Commission has been asked to approve a project without the ability to see what it will look like.
This occurred with the CVS project. I was at the Sebastopol Planning Commission meeting in May, 2011 (as a member of the public) when Commissioner Clare Najarian stated, “How am I supposed to approve a project that I have no idea what it even looks like?” A majority of her colleagues agreed, voting 4-2 for denial (the votes to approve coming from Commissioners Colin Doyle and Robert Green, the husband of then-Councilmember Kathleen Shaffer, a staunch advocate for the CVS project) of the Initial Study (IS) and Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) prepared by City staff for this project (an IS and MND are the basic documents required under CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), a state law). They are the easiest route to satisfying the requirements of CEQA for project approval; otherwise, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a potentially complex and expensive document, is required. Unfortunately, in the absence of direction from City staff at this meeting, the Planning Commissioners failed to develop adequate “findings” to legally support their denial. This floundering would come back to haunt the then-Sebastopol City Council.
Having abandoned their initial “Anytown, USA” generic building design, Armstrong Development hired a local architect, Kevin Kellogg, to produce a custom design for Sebastopol, in an attempt to give the project a “West County” vibe, with actual glass display windows and doors that faced our public streets. Oftentimes, the project seemed to be going backwards with each successive revision. Ultimately, the Sebastopol Design Review Board (DRB), after several meetings, denied the project due to design issues and lack of compliance with Sebastopol’s Design Review Guidelines. It was felt by them to be too modern and overbearing in its presence, and incompatible with our downtown core.
A Religious Calling
My initial interest in this project was piqued by the appearance of a notice from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in a window at the defunct Pellini dealership, indicating that an application had been filed to sell alcoholic beverages on the site. I immediately started to closely monitor the proposed CVS project as a citizen. It was never my intent to stop this project- my goal was to help realize a better result.
I attended every meeting and provided the developer (and City) with numerous photos of highly successful and inviting multi-story mixed use developments (some, ironically, containing CVS drug stores…), often with a vintage appearance, as inspiration to create a place Sebastopol could be proud of. An assortment of retail spaces, residential units and service providers that successfully integrated visually with our town, while expanding our economic base- a walkable place where you could comfortably meet your friends, shop and hang out.
I advocated for a more efficient and intense use of the precious downtown land being consumed by this project. A higher return on the developer’s investment. A really cool place that just happened to contain a CVS drug store and a Chase bank, both as components, not as the centers of attention. All of these efforts fell on deaf ears. When it became obvious that the developers had no interest in intensifying the project, I turned my attention to attempting to improve the design of the buildings. The current building design reflects, in part, that effort.
Tomorrow, Part 2 starts with 'CVS Pushes Back'