CVS design turns its back on Franklin Boulevard

Residents baffled by city plans for pharmacy at old Mercado Loco site

In government, there are good ideas and there are bad ideas. Then, there is that broad category of unintended consequences and good ideas done badly.

Take the city of Sacramento’s attempt to apply some forward-thinking planning principles to a planned chain-store pharmacy on Franklin Boulevard, which now seems to have backfired in a big way.

You may recall that last year neighbors in the North City Farms, Hollywood Park and Curtis Park neighborhoods were pretty agitated to learn that the Mercado Loco market on Sutterville Road and Franklin Boulevard would be torn down and replaced with a CVS pharmacy and convenience store. Neighbors even circulated a petition asking the landowner—the Sacramento Children’s Home, located next door—not to go through with the deal. But the containerized economy rolls on. Mercado Loco is already closed, with plywood over the doors.

After CVS submitted its application to the city, the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association asked the project developer for a number of changes, to make the project a little less of suburban-style beige box surrounded by parking.

“The idea was to make it more architecturally compatible with the Sacramento Children’s Home, and more bike and pedestrian friendly,” explained Andrea Rosen, a Curtis Park resident and SCNA member, who negotiated with the CVS developer on the plan.

CVS agreed to drop several parking spaces, put bike parking near the store entrance, and reduce the drive-thru pharmacy lanes from two to one. A shade-providing arched trellis would be built near the sidewalk, connected by a raised brick walkway running from the street corner to the building’s corner entrance. The developer also agreed to consider adding larger windows.

Still a big box, but could be worse. Rosen said she felt pretty good about the changes. That was in summer 2013. Fast-forward a year and a half, when Rosen learned the city had approved an entirely different project. “They completely trashed the pedestrian experience,” she says.

Now the entrance is on the west side, facing the Children’s Home. There are no entrances planned to face the street; instead, the building turns its rear to Sutterville. There’s another blank wall facing Franklin. The CVS will have “window graphics”—meaning signs, not actual windows for looking through—on the walls facing the street.

“This makes absolutely no sense in terms of good urban planning and design and it will be an incredible eyesore at this intersection,” says Marti Brown, executive director of the North Franklin Business District Association, who worked for many years as an urban planner for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

Brown added the building’s vast flanks will be prime targets for neighborhood graffiti artists. “I can’t imagine this would be allowed to happen in Land Park, or East Sacramento.”

What happened? Ironically, the new design was an attempt by city planners to limit building “setbacks” and put new buildings close to city sidewalks, and thereby be more connected to surrounding streets and sidewalks.

The setback ordinance, put in place after CVS began its application for the Franklin Boulevard site, says new building fronts shouldn’t be set back more than 25 feet from the property line.

The purpose of the policy, says Sacramento city associate planner David Hung, is so “the building can be closer to the street, and there can be more interaction with the street. There can be eyes on the street.”

City planners wanted CVS to put the building entrance on the sidewalk. CVS instead asked for a variance from the new policy, and to stick with their original plan. City planners refused. CVS said OK, but insisted on having the store entrance face the parking lot, and no entrance facing the street. “For us, this is a compromise solution,” said Hung.

The result of the compromise, says Brown, is a building that, “literally turns its back” on the street. “No entrance on either street. No eyes on the street. No building face on either commercial corridor.”

Hung says the new entrance, facing the Children’s Home on the building’s west side, will still be near the sidewalk on Sutterville. And he said SCNA was notified that there were changes, so it’s not clear how the new design got by them.

Still, neighbors feel the city has botched implementation of its new zoning rules.

“You’ve got to think about how it works out on the ground,” says Rosen. “Is the intent of the ordinance to build a building that turns its back on a busy intersection?”

Brown says CVS should get a refund of its planning fees and be allowed to resubmit their original plan. She thinks neighborhood would be better off with a more suburban-style layout than a more urban design done badly.

“It’s a great planning principle to strive for,” said Brown. “But if you can’t reach it, don’t do something this egregious.”