After being wooed for over a year, the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations just couldn’t commit. But that was still good news for representatives of Walgreen’s, the pharmacy chain trying to open an outlet with a drive-through window at the corner of Boswell Avenue and Richmond Highway. Because the drive-through would require an exemption to the zoned use for the area, the pharmacy has had to work from the grassroots up to secure approval from the Board of Supervisors.
Since it began its efforts in August, 2005, the team representing Walgreen’s won approval from several MVCCA committees, but never a resolution passed by the entire body. Although the MVCCA, an umbrella coalition for neighborhood associations in the Mount Vernon district, holds no formal governing power, it is extremely influential with District Supervisor Gerry Hyland, who will often introduce legislation to the Board of Supervisors in response to MVCCA resolutions. At its October meeting, the MVCCA declined the opportunity take up a vote condemning zoning changes for the Walgreen’s drive-through, signaling its tacit approval for the project.
By offering to make improvements to the intersection of Boswell and Route 1, Walgreen’s won approval from the MVCCA’s Planning and Zoning Committee and Transportation Committee. Frank Cohn, the chairman of the Transportation Committee, said his committee was in favor of the plan because the need for their approval allowed them to leverage from Walgreen’s a commitment to upgrade the tricky intersection near Mount Vernon Plaza. “The big problem is, that intersection is a lousy intersection. I don’t care what the problem is, any business is going to add to the traffic. However if they can build by right we don’t get any benefits out of that,” Cohn said.
These changes would include a dedicated right-turn lane on Boswell, new stop signs on the road, re-timing of the light signals and the closure of the small access road connecting Richmond Highway to Fordson that allowed motorists to avoid the light, a shortcut the police often ticket for.
OPPOSITION TO THE WALGREEN’S drive-through has come from the Gum Springs Citizens Association, which represents the historically black neighborhood accessed by Boswell Avenue. At the MVCCA’s October meeting, the association’s chairman Queenie Cox said the drive-through will disrupt traffic on Boswell. Claiming the improvements were not enough, she called on the MVCCA to uphold the current zoning of the property. “It’s not for any willy-nilly kind of thing. We either follow the comprehensive plan or we don’t.”
Cox introduced a resolution to condemn approval for the drive-through, which could be a deal-killer for the Walgreen’s project. But because the resolution was not on the agenda, council-members first had to vote on whether to take it into consideration at all. This led one member to suggest they send the resolution back to committee for recommendations, then vote on it at the next meeting.
The suggestion drew a frustrated protest from Sheri Hoy, a land use planner with the law firm McGuire Woods who has represented Walgreen’s throughout the project. “Time is of the essence to us,” she said. “We’ve been in this application process over a year.” She listed the many community meetings she has already attended to win endorsements for the project, and added that the Board of Supervisors is set to decide on the Walgreen’s issue at their Nov. 20 meeting, before the MVCCA is scheduled to meet again.
Barry Clark, the owner of Dak’s Grill, attended the meeting to voice his support for Walgreen’s and his opposition to Cox’s stand. He agreed that “time is of the essence,” for his business as well. He is planning to relocate and expand his steakhouse from 75 to 150 employees. But the move is conditional on the approval of the Walgreen’s location because he will be selling one parcel of land to the company and buying another from them. He said the uncertainty of the deal meant he had 75 employees “walking around on pins and needles not knowing what their fate is.”
COUNCIL CO-CHAIRMAN Robert Reynolds said if the council voted to take up the Gum Springs Resolution even though it wasn’t on the agenda, it would have an opportunity to finally express an opinion on an issue that began in August of 2005. “At this point the council has no opinion on this issue,” he said.
And that is how it stayed. Only eight people out 24 voted to consider the resolution, far below the 2/3 majority needed to make the resolution eligible for an up or down vote.
Greg Riegle a lawyer with McGuire Woods handling the Walgreen’s issue, said that assuming the project is approved by the board later this month, construction of the new Walgreen’s and its drive-through should begin in the spring or summer of next year.