Updated: Plans for a Downtown CVS Spark Outcry

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This story was revised June 7.

By Lauren Korduner, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach city staff recommends denial of a bid by CVS Pharmacy to replace Laguna Drug in the downtown area. The application for a conditional use permit comes before the Planning Commission on Wednesday, June 7.

In its objections to the proposal, staff cited the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, which lays out development guidelines that discourage national chains that fail to differentiate their product offerings and standardized layouts.

Staff noted that the proposed interior design plan by CVS would be distinctive from other locations. But presentation wasn’t the problem.

Pacific Planning Group, representing CVS, argued in a May 23 letter that the product offering satisfies an “unmet need” in the community. The letter invoked the name of Sprouse-Reitz, the old five-and-dime store that years ago occupied the same space CVS hopes to occupy.

According to the letter, CVS would offer “every day goods and necessities” not found in other downtown stores. These items would include milk and eggs, affordable midmarket health and beauty items, underwear and socks, school and office supplies, and customized seasonal items.

Nearby retailers offer “specialty” and “luxury, high-end comparable products,” the letter said.

Staff disagreed. The products CVS proposed to carry, staff said, are “comparable” to items found at Coast Hardware, Whole Foods Market, Bushard’s Pharmacy, and other downtown merchants. The CVS proposal also fails to meet the “unique merchandise” requirement of the Downtown Specific Plan, according to the report.

“We believe our wide assortment of affordable health and convenience items are a complement, not a comparable, to the specialty product offerings of nearby retailers,” said CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis.

“We strive to price our products competitively in each of our communities,” DeAngelis said.

The CVS spokesman said the proposed store would feature a “local products” section in addition to its general merchandise.

This was not enough to sway city planners, however. “Staff believes that the ubiquity and brand recognition merits more differentiation than has been submitted,” the report said.

If the CVS application is not approved, Laguna Drug will seek early termination of its lease, which expires in 2020, said Mike Henn, chief financial officer of Quality Drug. “We have no plans to approach another buyer at this time,” Henn said.

A subsidiary of Quality Drug, Laguna Drug has occupied its current location on Broadway Street since 2004 and lists HIV care among its services. Quality Drug also operates two pharmacies in Newport Beach.

Quality Drug intends to open a new facility, Quality Drug Clinical Care, at a new location yet to be determined, Henn said. This facility will continue the company’s “holistic approach” to health and wellness, complete with private consultation rooms and referral services to local organizations such as Shanti Orange County and Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Henn said, but he would not give timeline for this project.

Shanti Orange County executive director and Laguna Beach HIV Advisory Committee member Sarah Kasman signed a letter of support for CVS.

The transaction will enable Quality Drug “to serve the Laguna Beach HIV community even better in the future, with expanded wellness, health and educational programs and continued high level of care and compassion,” says Kasman’s letter. Three other Shanti staff members and HIV Advisory Committee member David Garza signed identical letters.

Should the CVS project move forward, the national pharmacy chain will retain non-HIV prescriptions, Henn said. Regardless of the outcome, Henn said Quality Drug will continue to provide delivered prescriptions for all of its HIV customers—over 500 living in south Orange County. “Clients will experience uninterrupted – and even enhanced – service,” Henn said.

Another letter in support of CVS came from Lisa Maria Broughton, a 10-year North Laguna Beach resident. She called the CVS proposal “a safe, affordable and dependable option.”

“I don’t believe it will affect the local boutique pharmacy owners, as they attract a different client for many different reasons,” said Broughton, who says she shops at CVS in South Laguna and Corona del Mar.

Despite the letters of support, there remains substantial opposition to the CVS project, including a petition begun by Bushard’s Pharmacy. The Change.org petition has garnered more than 306 supporters and Sheila Bushard claims to have more signatures on paper.

The small business owner said she was unconcerned about losing business to CVS and believes her customers will remain loyal. “It’s not about me,” Bushard said. “I’m more concerned about the character of downtown,” she said.

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