We’ve been considering the proposed Walgreen’s downtown for a couple of months now. I’ve had several opportunities to learn about the details of the plan. I’ve heard feedback from residents and business owners. I’ve heard city staff discuss the plan, and I’ve heard representatives from Midland Commercial Development Co (the developers) explain it. After careful consideration of all information in front of me, I’ve decided to vote to approve the general development plan at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Here’s what’s happening. Walgreen’s has proposed to build a store downtown, at the corner of S. Broadway and S. Wisconsin. This is the northeast corner at the roundabout, just east of the Claude Allouez Bridge. Looking at the photos on the right, the top is one that I took of the location a few weeks ago. The one below is a developer’s rendering showing what the site would look like with the new store. Notice that three buildings in the top photo would be torn down to make way for the new store and parking lot: (A) owned by Carol Shier, (B) owned by Kenneth and Silvia Butz, and (C) owned by Thomas Bartel.
These are my feelings on the various aspects of the plan.
The most significant resistance to the plan comes from the Historic Preservation Commission, and residents and business owners with similar concerns. The Shier building is part of an Historic District, and as such, the Historic Preservation Commission does not want it torn down. They want to maintain the historic charm and beauty of that block. The other two buildings are not part of the historic district, I suppose because they don’t look historic. I don’t disagree with the charge of the commission. The problem is that they are fighting for preservation no matter the cost (to the owner).
The Shier building is 100 years old. Based on a request at a recent City Council meeting, the developer hired a contractor to look at the building and see what it would take to renovate and keep the building. The estimate from The Redmond Company came in at $309,000. So if we did not go through with the Walgreen’s, and someone else were to buy the building, they’d have to shoulder that cost (in addition to the cost of the building itself) just to keep it in its current state. Depending on the actual use, the costs could fluctuate up or down, but there would still be significant renovation costs nonetheless.
Carol Shier, the owner of the building, spoke at the Plan Commission meeting on March 13, 2013. She is retiring and has been trying to sell the building for three years. It seems obvious that the cost of renovation is a significant hinderance for a potential buyer. She wants to sell to Walgreen’s, saying that if this doesn’t go through, she anticipates that she’ll still have the building for a number of years. As the owner of the building, she has rights that supercede the desires of the Historic Preservation Commission. She can tear it down if she wants to, and she should also be allowed to sell it.
What I don’t understand is why the commission is not considering the overall look and charm of the entire block. Think about this for a minute. The other two white buildings, the Butz and Bartel buildings, are not part of the historic district for a reason. Standing alone, they’re okay. But on this block, in our downtown, they look bad. They stick out. They are not historic. They don’t fit the overall charm and beauty of the rest of the block. I suspect that any member of the Historic Preservation Commission might agree with me on that. And now the city has been presented with a plan that removes those two buildings, and replaces them with a brand new building that does indeed fit the block, and extends the historic look and charm 100 feet to the south. How can we not seriously consider this option?
When we first considered this plan at our January 15, 2013 City Council meeting, I asked Mary Jane Herber, the president of the Historic Preservation Commission, if they could be in favor of tearing down one historic building, if it meant replacing it with an even larger historic looking building and extending the historic look and charm further down the block. Herber would not answer on behalf of the commission (because they have not discussed it), but personally, she said no. And so this is where I differ with her (and perhaps the commission). Looking at the top photo above, their concern is only about the look of the block from the Shier building (A) to the left (north). They are not concerned at all about the other two buildings or that part of the block. As a City Council, we are. We have to be.
Let me give you another perspective. The photo at left is a rendering from the developer looking south on S. Broadway. This is what that block will look like with Walgreen’s. Look at it for a minute and tell me if you see any building that looks out of place. I would argue that the only building that doesn’t belong is the De Pere Business Center building in the middle of the block (with the large white sign and horizontal burgundy lines). That sign does not have any historic charm, and it doesn’t match anything else around it, but no one complains about it, certainly not the Historic Preservation Commission. And if you look further down the block (to the right), you come to the new Walgreen’s on the end, and it actually looks nice. It looks like it fits, like it belongs. It looks like they bought a 100 year-old-building and moved in.
I applaud the developers and The Albion Group, the architects, for the design, and the way they’ve made this store fit into our downtown.
(Before anyone hollers about my comments regarding the De Pere Business Center building, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m just saying that if you are looking out for the historic nature of all the buildings on this block, then I don’t understand why you’re overlooking this building.)
In all the feedback I’ve heard from residents and businesses, no one has mentioned the utilities running under the current parking lot, but we have to consider this. There are significant storm and sewer pipes under the current parking lot (near the white car in the upper photo above). If any developer is going to do anything with this property, those utilities must be moved, and that’s not cheap. I’ve heard a couple of numbers, so I’m not sure of the exact cost, but it’s over $700,000. Now, when working out a plan with a developer, the city needs to consider this. And the Walgreen’s developer is willing to pick up the significant majority of those costs. Let’s not overlook this.
Other developers might have a good plan, but might not be able to afford moving the utilities. In that situation, guess who would pay for it. Us, the taxpayers. Some folks have complained about allowing a “big box” store into our downtown (which is strange because there’s a Shopko 3 blocks away). But perhaps such a store is the only kind that could afford such costs.
A number of residents and local business owners have expressed concerns about traffic. As you can see from this diagram, the S. Broadway driveway is immediately north of the roundabout, and there is some concern that as you’re exiting the driveway, you could have accidents with cars coming out of the roundabout going north. Some have spoken about the speed of cars coming out of the roundabout. Others have talked about the obstructed view you’ll have as you’re exiting the driveway, and that you may not be able to see the traffic very well. And even others expressed concern about pedestrian safety. We discussed this at our January 15, 2013 City Council meeting, I had similar concerns.
So it was requested of the developers to do a traffic study, to find out if these concerns are valid. In turn, they hired Traffic Analysis & Design, Inc (TADI) of Cedarburg, WI to study the plan and the intersection. Long story short, TADI had similar concerns, and made some recommendations. As a result, the developers changed the design in several ways, one of which by allowing only right turns (going north) out of the driveway. According to TADI, the newly designed driveway now has safe movement in all directions, going in and out.
Even with the modifications, people still expressed concerns over traffic at last week’s Plan Commission meeting. I’m glad they shared their opinions. But with all due respect, we requested a traffic study and we got one. And I’m going with the opinion of the professionals.
Another concern raised by many was the issue of competition, and other similar stores nearby. Generally speaking, most simply said, “we don’t need another Walgreen’s.” Here are the stores I heard mentioned, and their distance from this development:
- Shopko, 3 blocks
- Stowe Drug, 0.9 miles
- Walgreen’s, 1.4 miles
- CVS, 1.2 miles
- Aurora Pharmacy, 1.6 miles
- Shopko Express, 2.7 miles
The issue of competition isn’t so simple. Yes, the city can govern what kinds of businesses it wants in certain parts of the city. But that’s as far as our reach should go. Just look around you. We have many areas where there are multiple restaurants within blocks of each other. And there are bars, gas stations, hotels, etc. Competing businesses are everywhere; this is healthy. There’s nothing wrong with a pharmacy being located a few blocks from another pharmacy.
And for the record, 3 of the above stores are on the west side of town; the new Walgreen’s will be on the east side. As much as I don’t think this matters, and as much as we try to operate as a unified city, many De Pere residents just don’t like crossing the river if they don’t have to. Having another pharmacy on the east side of town will be a good thing.
I shared the concern of some residents, that the side of the store that faces S. Broadway is actually the back of the store. The front will be on S. Wisconsin, where the parking lot is. However, we want Broadway to be an area where we can walk up and down the blocks and go into stores. Without an entrance on Broadway, this seems to defeat the purpose of improving the block.
I initially struggled with this. The developers came back with a door on S. Broadway, but it’s only an employee entrance. And another door further down toward the roundabout is only an emergency exit. So the main entrance will still be on the east side of the building, on S. Wisconsin.
From a business perspective (and for ADA concerns), Walgreen’s has to have an entrance by the parking lot, and having 2 entrances just isn’t a good idea. It would require an extra cash register there with corresponding staff. Changing the design to move the parking lot is also not a good idea. At some point here, we have to be realistic about the needs of the business.
But there’s another way to consider this. Looking at the rest of the block, none of the other buildings really support the kind walk-in traffic we’re talking about. We don’t have retail shops and restaurants like many would think. Yes, there’s a lamp shade store. But there is also a business services company, a ticket seller, a printing company, a tax preparer, and a couple of buildings for sale. No restaurants or bars on that block. No ice cream shops or general retail shops on that block. So, saying that Walgreen’s won’t support the walking traffic that we want (as I originally said) is not a valid concern.
And after all, if you just continue walking around the building, maybe another 100 feet, the main entrance is right there.
The configuration of the drive thru is unusual, and hard to explain. You may need to click on the above diagram to see it yourself. There are two lanes of traffic in the driveway, which seems okay. But then there’s another lane of traffic against the building for the drive thru lane. And when you’re done at the drive thru, you have to cross over an oncoming lane of traffic to get out of the driveway. This seems awkward, like it might invite accidents.
This is another area where the developer made some improvements after our discussion at a previous City Council meeting. And I’m now comfortable with it. Let me first say that, while we citizens are concerned about traffic and safety, we also need to recognize the fact that Walgreen’s also has an interest in having a safe parking lot and driveway for their customers. That said, there are a couple of elements which I believe will make the driveway safe.
First, westbound traffic exiting the parking lot will have a stop sign, allowing the drive thru traffic to get in that lane in front of them. Second, the drive thru traffic also has a space to stop and wait for a safe opportunity to exit. Third, the estimated volume at the drive thru is a max of 5 cars per hour. And it’s a parking lot, so cars will be going slow. I just don’t see many accidents happening, if any at all.
I also emailed the developers on this issue, and asked for diagrams of other Walgreen’s stores that have unusual driveways. They provided 3 such diagrams, 2 here in Wisconsin and one from Michigan. And there have been no problems at those stores. They presented these diagrams at last week’s Plan Commission meeting, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t also present them to the full City Council next Tuesday.
So, I certainly don’t want our police and fire departments spending time responding to parking lot issues at Walgreen’s. And while the drive thru configuration is a bit unusual, I’m comfortable that there will not be a problem.
Who started it?
At last week’s Plan Commission meeting, Ald. Boyd said that constituents have asked him who started this whole process. Did the city ask Walgreen’s to develop here, or did Walgreen’s come to the city? The answer is that Walgreen’s approached the city.
But I’m curious about the question. I don’t fault Ald. Boyd for asking it, after all, it’s what people are asking him. But it seems as if the people are thinking that it’s not okay if the city had approached Walgreen’s about this development. And to that, I certainly disagree. For all the reasons I’ve given, I believe that Walgreen’s is not only a good fit for this location, but that we need Walgreen’s. I’m not just in favor of this project because I don’t see any problems. I’m in favor because the location on S. Broadway is a critical location in our downtown and the current buildings don’t look good. This store will bring additional services downtown, it’ll add competition, and it’ll create jobs. De Pere needs this Walgreen’s.
By simply looking at the latest version of the plan, I like the fit. I like the way it looks at the roundabout. Based on the 3D images provided, I can picture what it will look like as I’m driving around the roundabout, and I like it. They’ve got a nice sidewalk area with trees and benches. It looks comfortable and safe. It looks friendly. It looks like it will promote and even enhance the look and feel that we expect in downtown De Pere. There was much criticism about the original plan. But the developers have listened and responded well, and it’s time to move this project forward.
If you have any questions or concerns about the project, I hope you will attend Tuesday’s City Council meeting.