Some weeks back, we used this space to support the building of a CVS drug store at its proposed site of Washington and West streets. While our argument was not fully fleshed out, we concluded that the plan, as proposed, was by and large a good one for a corner drug store.
That remains our position still, despite a very compelling presentation last week by Preservation Alliance of West Virginia Eastern Panhandle representative Curt Mason, who raised a number of points we agree with.
At the time we first offered our opinion about the plan, the Charles Town Historic Landmarks Commission had just approved the proposal after squeezing out a few design concessions from developer, the Rebkee Company. Those design changes were largely ornamental, but would have added about $200,000 to the final cost of the $5 million project.
Opponents of the store as designed have roughed it up on a number of fronts, one being that the construction of a new building will require the demolition of a number of buildings, ones insofar as they matter, significant to the downtown because they are listed as contributing structures to Charles Town’s Historic Overlay District. However, we see no evidence that these buildings are significant enough to warrant protection — they are just old.
We do, however, cede to the logic of West Virginia Division of Culture and History Director Susan Pierce who has maintained that the demolition of historic buildings is worrisome to the degree that the loss of contributing buildings contributes to the erosion of a historic district’s integrity. But not all contributing buildings contribute equally, and even the loss of a prominent and historically significant building can and does sometimes result in something better — consider, for example, the reconstruction of the Morgan County Courthouse, which was built following the loss of the original to fire.
Opponents have also maintained that this CVS, as planned, would result in no net gain in downtown pedestrian traffic. This just seems unlikely; chain stores are open evenings and weekends and the addition of such an operation downtown could be just the incentive some independent shops might need to increase their own hours of operation.
If we have any reservations about the project, they reside in its size and its overall compatibility with the streetscape.
We suspect even supporters of the project will be surprised at how much of the block the store and its parking lot will engulf upon its completion; a 14,000-square foot building — while not the “big box” opponents charge — will substantially alter the look of that corner.
Aesthetically, it will be an improvement; the corner as it looks right now is nothing if not an eyesore.
However, we do agree with city officials who have argued that the building would be better situated were it not recessed into the block, but were built flush with the street face. Such a siting, with parking facing Liberty Street, would surely do more to enhance what architectural preservationists call the unifying “rhythm of the streetscape.”
City officials, however, absent a provision in the city’s zoning code, can’t require such a design and CVS isn’t offering one.
Despite a hiccup this week when planning commissioners voted not to recommend full access to and from the proposed site, apparently forgetting they had already issued such an approval in November, the project appears to be moving forward; the City Council last week rejected considering a public hearing on the project, even though it received more than 90 petition signatures and salvos continue between the office of culture and history and the state Division of Highways, which last week released its response to a charge from Pierce that the permit issued for the project ahead of an historical review of the site was done in error.
Even as the project continues, we urge city officials to approve updates to its zoning code that could enforce requirements governing setbacks and siting of new construction. This is the best hope city officials have of requiring that future construction be most in keeping with the character and aesthetic of Charles Towns’ historic downtown.