Walgreens, Phase 2

A softer approach

Yesterday Connolly Net Lease, the developer who has acquired the historic Fire Station No. 22 and several adjacent parcels along the 3100 block of Clairmont Avenue South, held a charrette to help determine what a new Walgreens would look like. Coming off of a contentious earlier effort (which involved demolishing the Fire Station), the new plan is at first glance more pleasing to neighbors and others: the Fire Station has been saved, and will house two of the existing businesses that will be demolished on adjacent lots (Bogue’s Restaurant and Triple Platinum Salon). Connolly said the famous Bogue’s neon sign will be preserved and move it to the Fire Station; a neighborhood landmark is preserved and will have two local businesses inside. Good.  But what about the plan for the new structure and site layout?

Context is complex

The largest issue here is not the architecture per se (although it’s important), but the site layout itself. Above is Clairmont Avenue, looking west from the Fire Station. Note all the setbacks along the street–except for Bogue’s, whose setback is perhaps 5 feet or so, all structures are placed back 10-30 feet from the front property line. This is due in part to the fact the street was initially laid out residentially, with houses, porches, and apartment buildings. And lawns.

Sophisticated respect for context, ca. 1960

About 1960, the architectural firm Henry Sprott Long moved from their downtown offices to the leafier region of Clairmont Avenue, which by that point had become a less desirable residential address. They built an international style gem, with exposed steel beams, plate glass, stone veneer, and a flat roof (above). However, they were careful to respect their residential neighbors, preserving trees, keeping the scale modest–and setting the building back to match the adjacent houses.

Still historic in its own right

At the design charrette, the principals of Blackmon Rogers Architects showed a site plan that has a +/- 13,500 square foot Walgreens moved all the way to the western edge of the lot, and pulled out to the sidewalk with no setback. This awkwardly hems in Henry Sprott Long. In many cases, the correct “urban” and “pedestrian-friendly” location of a commercial building is right at the sidewalk. In this case, we’re not as sure.

A bit too close for comfort

In the architect’s quick sketch prepared yesterday above (please note: these are very early sketches in the process), an option for the new Walgreens facade on Clairmont is illustrated. They have made an effort to bring down the height to relate to Henry Sprott Long seen at the left; what you don’t see is the shadow that would be cast on the older building which is set so much further back. And to the other side of the Walgreens is…

an urban void

…a large surface parking lot, the extent of which can be seen in the second part of the sketch above (note the diminutive Fire Station to the far right). Having this much surface parking running along Clairmont is not good. If I were to redesign this site, I would place Walgreens more in the center between the international style and Spanish-style historic structures (and yes, they are both historic); I would make it longer and skinnier along Clairmont to put more mass on the street; I would set it back a very modest amount from the sidewalk; and parking would be contained at the rear. As it is, the Fire Station feels marooned in isolation at the end of the sea of parking, and Henry Sprott Long has the opposite problem: it’s being strangled by its much larger new neighbor.

Contextual in Oak Park

While certain participants yesterday asked for “historical” elements in the design, what actually emerged as a favorite “prototype” was the new part of the Oak Park, IL Walgreens, shown above (the other part is a renovated existing historic structure). It’s decent, if conventional, corporate architecture. It’s much better than your standard Walgreens, which is good. And it’s good the neighborhood gets to have input into materials. It’s also good activists were able to save the Fire Station from demolition, and the developer plans to relocate local independent businesses there.

Unfortunate siting--but still early

But the neighborhood should also insist on a better site plan. The current plan (sketched crudely above by this author) does a disservice to both historic buildings. The architects are at least on the right track with a “21st century” style that doesn’t cheapen the Fire Station by mimicking it.  Hopefully, the developer will reconsider the site plan so that the block can feel more whole, and the beautiful little modernist building can breathe again.

[Thanks to Blackmon Rogers for allowing us to show the elevation sketches; Oak Park Walgreens pic courtesy of Walgreens]

19 responses to “Walgreens, Phase 2

  1. Thanks for keeping we expats up to date on things! Quick question: did they address parking in the meeting beyond “we gave ourselves a shit ton of parking”?

    • Brad, thank YOU for staying interested and keeping us engaged from afar with your blog. No, the meeting was really just about design of the building. I’m sure once they make their first presentation to the neighborhood and then Design Review, the parking will come up. I do believe they’ve already asked for a variance to lower the total amount of parking required by zoning.

  2. It does seem there will be a terrible shadow cast on the Henry Sprott Long building… which is one of my favorite buildings in the city….

    • Full disclosure–I worked at Henry Sprott Long for almost 3 years in the late 1990s, and it’s one of my favorite buildings in the city as well. The owner–Hank Long (son of the original architect), may sell and move his business unless he can be comfortable with the design next door. It would be a real loss to the City to lose that structure.

  3. The idea of a long building with parking behind makes sense in urban design terms, but not acceptable for this (or any retail) user. And then where is the entrance? At the back? A street-front entrance at the corner with parking to the east as proposed would be more urban. No easy answer here.

    • Exactly–no easy answers. A longer building is, indeed, unacceptable to this type of user. Putting such a big volume of area on a single story at this location is challenging, period.

  4. I am conflicted on this – on one hand, I really appreciate what they are doing and their willingness to renovate the Fire Station into a useful building (although I had hopes that Bogues would still face Clairmont rather then the salon getting the main exposure on the corner). On the other hand, I agree that the location of the building on the site is poor and could be better. Originally I thought that the lack of a setback was a good idea, especially if they had a street entrance. Now I am less sure of that.

    It would probably fit in a bit better if they placed it back at least 10 ft from the property line. However, I understand that they want a drive-through and I find it hard to force them into rear parking when almost every other business on that block has front parking as well. Regardless, it sounded like they were essentially firm on the actual site plan – was that your impression as well?

    They did seem receptive to our ideas, which unfortunately may have been too many and too different to give a general impression of exactly what it is the neighborhood wants. I am glad we could agree that the commercial red brick was probably a bad idea. Given that most of their suburban stores are covered in commercial red brick, I think that was a victory and the result will likely have a different feel on that point alone.

    • Yes–I’m encouraged about the material selection for the building itself, and the seeming willingness to entertain “retro” type signage, etc. Of course these things often get dumbed-down in the end, through no fault of the architect but rather because the Client has demanded a tighter budget. The building in Oak Park appears to be nothing if not costly per square foot–it even has a geothermal energy system and electric-car charging stations–clearly Walgreens is a huge corporation and can spend money if needed. But they probably don’t view Birmingham in the same category as Oak Park.

      As to site plan–while they called it “fixed” and did not really discuss it, I think it will be a different story when this comes to Design Review for approval–then it will most definitely be up for discussion. It will be interesting to hear it. Thanks for reading.

      • BHamNewcomer

        Thanks. There seemed to be some confusion about what neighborhood this was in as well – is it technically in Highland Park, or in Southside? Will it have to go through a neighborhood historic district design review before the city design review? My guess is that would only apply if it was in Highland Park.

      • This is in the Southside neighborhood (Highland Park starts directly across Clairmont). I’m not sure if there’s an historic oversight committee for this location beyond Design Review downtown, but someone else may know the answer to that. What certainly will not apply is the Highland Park overlay code, which of course is just relevant to Highland Park.

      • This is in the Lakeview Commercial District and is not in any ‘formal’ historic district (but the fire station is on the national registry). DRC would be the only review process for this project. Keep also in mind that if this were in Highland Park it would be forced to be much, much larger (linear frontage) and almost right on the front property line.

        A huge issue is the massive amounts of parking the city requires form something like this. I believe the variance being applied for is almost a reduction of 35% of the ‘required’ parking for the Walgreen’s. Too bad we can’t rewrite the code to have ‘maximum parking limits’ instead of requiring oceans of empty asphalt.

  5. Let’s not perpetuate mistakes of the past in setting buildings back. The area has redeveloped from residential to business and now there is a chance for it to transform from suburban to urban. The building should not be set back, certainly not more than a few feet and that should only be to make the sidewalk wider.

    I do agree the new building should be placed in the middle rather than all the way to the west side of the property. Having smaller parking areas on either side reduces the otherwise larger void in the street wall and helps mitigate the differences in scale and setback from the adjacent buildings. It also allows room for circulation around back (including drive-thru, if it has to be there…ugh).

    While the Henry Sprott Long building may have respected the earlier residential setback, I am sure that the adjacent homes did not have parking lots in front of them. Oops! I personally do not feel it would be a “real loss” to the city if the HSL building went away, but it would be a real gain if a truly urban building were erected its place.

    • While we disagree on the loss of the Henry Sprott Long building, I certainly agree we’ve got a chance to create a more walkable urban environment. I think it’s important to understand the contextual history of the street before making assumptions about setbacks. Right now the sidewalk it quite narrow; the modest setback I suggested would of course be to widen the pedestrian zone, not to create suburban-style plantings or parking.

      And the big killer is the huge parking lot fronting Clairmont. The small, guest motor court in front of Henry Sprott Long is at least in scale with the building. Yes, a product of its time, and no one is arguing for setbacks with parking lots today. But the scale of the visible parking suggested by Walgreens at the moment is a real issue.

      A master plan for the street would take into account the existing setbacks of historic buildings, and enlarge the pedestrian zone to integrate this with an overall unified effect. Thanks for your comments.

  6. Huge parking lots are required by Bham’s zoning ordinance, which requires a retail store to have a minimum of one parking space for each two hundred fifty square feet of floor area. This bldg has 13,500 sq ft. Therefore, to meet code it must have at least 135 parking spaces on the property.

  7. Correction: Code requires 54 parking spaces, not 135.

  8. Again, you’ve given us a stellar presentation. Thanks for the update! Perhaps some type of fencing with shrubbery along the sidewalk, to mask the visual impact of the parking lot would be in order. No easy solution, indeed, but with everyone willing to chat about this, I’m sure a satisfactory solution will develop over time.

  9. Pingback: Design Review Alert | Bhamarchitect's Blog

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