Magazine Street touts itself as “one of New Orleans’ premier shopping and entertainment districts,” with an emphasis on small and locally owned businesses, so when developers presented a plan to convert a vacant Blockbuster Video store on Magazine at the edge of the Garden District into a new CVS pharmacy, they can hardly have been surprised by the lackluster reaction from residents.
“We don’t need another store to go buy gum and beer,” said Constance Street resident Mindy Decker, noting that there already is a Walgreens drugstore a few blocks away and suggesting CVS consider Tchoupitoulas Street instead.
The corner building at Louisiana Avenue and Magazine Street has sat largely vacant since the recent wave of Blockbuster Video closings, though the Subway sandwich shop and Green Tea Chinese restaurant on the Louisiana Avenue side of the building remain open. Now, CVS hopes to buy the building, renovate it completely and use the entire space for a pharmacy, attorney Michael Sherman told neighbors at a meeting Tuesday evening.
Although the chain had wanted a 24-hour operation at the location, Sherman said the local development team felt sure that wouldn’t fly with the Garden District neighbors, so they scaled back the proposed hours to 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
CVS does plan to sell alcohol, Sherman said, which will require a conditional use permit from the City Council — as will the larger square footage once the store is consolidated.
“We need lots of feedback,” Sherman said. “The application has not even been filed with the city yet.”
The plan would essentially return the building to its original use, Sherman said, noting that it was built for an Eckerd drugstore. But he said the building needs serious updating, such as a pedestrian entrance on the Magazine Street side, away from the parking lot.
The developers presented a draft of some architectural ideas they have collected, but Sherman said he expects it to be heavily revised based on neighbors’ feedback — mentioning several times the numerous revisions that went into the design of a Walgreens on the upper end of Magazine, past Jefferson Avenue.
“The major construction is going to be trying to improve the look of the façade,” Sherman said. “What’s clear from tonight is we really have more to do.”
For many residents, the sale of alcohol presented a major problem. Sherman said the store would not sell any alcohol as single bottles or cans for individual consumption, but neighbors said the Walgreens down the street has thrived despite an agreement not to sell alcohol. If CVS receives permission to sell alcohol, they said, the Walgreens will likely feel compelled to follow suit.
James Smoak, of the Touro-Bouligny Neighborhood Association, told the developers he doubts his group will agree to support any plan that includes alcohol sales.
“I’ve gotten feedback already about alcohol,” he said. “People don’t want it.”
Most of neighbors’ other concerns, such as about hours, lighting and litter, can be addressed in a good-neighbor agreement, Sherman said.
“The toughest thing right now — and y’all have been loud and clear — is that you don’t want any alcohol,” he said. “We’re going to discuss that back and forth. But to the extent that it’s ‘zero alcohol’ and not negotiable, there may be an impasse.”
Shelley Landrieu, of the Garden District Association, said she did not know how her board would vote on the proposal but that they clearly would prefer a business that does not sell alcohol. In fact, a local business of some sort would have been far better than a CVS, Landrieu said, but the association is unlikely to try to stop a private property owner from developing a business. The association is grateful that the developers were at least sharing information in advance, she said.
“This would not have been our first choice of what goes there,” Landrieu said. “But you manage the best that you can do. Hopefully, we can come up with a better project from where it started.”
Yung Lau, owner of the Green Tea restaurant next door, said he will find a new location if the development displaces his business but that he doubts the CVS will ultimately go through. New Orleans prefers local businesses too strongly, he said.
“The whole street will all be pharmacies. What’s the point?” Lau asked. “It’s better to have a local store. If it’s all franchises, you’re not doing any good for the neighborhood.”
The proposal must be heard by the City Planning Commission and then by the City Council. No dates for those hearings have been set.