By Lauren Korduner
City Council members upheld a decision by the Planning Commission with their own unanimous vote Tuesday, effectively blocking CVS from opening a second store in the city’s downtown.
Approval of a conditional use permit would have allowed a change of ownership sought by operators of Laguna Drug, whose principals operate another pharmacy in Newport Beach.
The national retail pharmacy eliminated alcohol sales and revised its merchandise and signage plans as part of its appeal. Despite the changes, city staff recommended denial.
Afterwards, CVS spokeswoman Amy Lanctot said the company has no plans to continue pursuing the location. CVS already operates a pharmacy in South Laguna. “We continue to believe that a CVS Pharmacy would have been a positive addition to downtown Laguna Beach by providing the community with access to convenient pharmacy products and services while maintaining the space’s exterior design,” Lanctot said in a statement.
A petition against the proposed downtown CVS Pharmacy garnered over 1,200 signatures prior to the initial Planning Commission hearing, according to Sheila Bushard Jamison, who owns Bushard’s Pharmacy, a longtime downtown merchant.
“Ultimately…this is not about whether we like or don’t like CVS. It’s about whether it fits certain land use criteria,” said Council Member Bob Whalen.
Criteria in the downtown specific plan, a guide for development standards, requires businesses operating in the district to offer “unique merchandise” and facilitate the “regional draw of destination shoppers.”
Staff commended the applicant’s “distinct interior presentation,” but did not waver from its earlier assertion in June that the national retail pharmacy’s approach to merchandise is “formulaic.” The Planning Commission based their decision to deny CVS the permit on these grounds.
“While the downtown specific plan does not in any way prohibit formula-based businesses, [it] does set exacting requirements on these types of businesses,” said city planner Anthony Viera.
According to the plan, projects reviewed and approved by the city should also “encourage businesses that enhance the character of Laguna Beach.”
Resident Kim Brown, one of 15 people who spoke in opposition to CVS, referenced this specific aspect of the downtown plan. “This used to be a town with so much character. Your job is to protect what character it has left,” Brown said. “The location they want is the entrance to our little town. Do we really want a CVS to be one of the first things people see when they come here?” Brown asked rhetorically. “This is a major drugstore chain. It will never be quaint.”
Thirteen people spoke in defense of CVS’s proposal, including two lawyers. Deborah Rosenthal, a land use attorney and certified planner, co-signed a letter to City Council dated Aug. 18. A drugstore is “one of the uses that the downtown specific plan recognizes as an ‘anchor’ for resident serving retail,” she said. “Drugstores are not intended to be a regional attraction,” she said, yet they “pull resident shoppers in, week after week, month after month.”
CVS submitted a revised proposal in July, which included eliminating alcohol sales. Even so, the revisions included no additional floor space dedicated to “Notions/General/Seasonal” inventory, category that would have included “locally produced items,” according to CVS. Lanctot said CVS cannot finalize agreements with local vendors until the company receives approval to occupy the store.
Comparisons were made to earlier Planning Commission deliberations in 2002 when Laguna Drug also sought a conditional use permit. The company was also considered a “formula-based business.” At that time, Laguna Drug dedicated approximately one-third of its floor space to silk flowers and gift items, Viera said.
That merchandise mix and dedication of nearly half its floor space met the downtown specific plan criteria test for “items that are distinctive, unique, or otherwise in limited distribution,” the staff report noted. Representatives from Laguna Drug said the store is unprofitable.
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