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CVS drugstore eyes Watson's Foodtown

(ran East, South West editions)

The project must pass muster with several boards and residents, some of whom fear more traffic and development east of Fourth Street.

A nationally prominent drugstore chain wants to build on a site occupied by a longtime neighborhood market.

A 10,000-square-foot CVS drugstore with a drive-through pharmacy would replace Watson's Foodtown, a fixture on Fourth Street N since the 1960s.

First, the drugstore project must clear several regulatory hurdles and get past neighborhood controversy.

Some residents believe a fresh, new store will improve the image of the corner at 845 Fourth St. N, where public drinking and urination, among other unsavory activities, are said to be frequently observed.

The site currently "is the honey pot of degradation," resident Maureen Stafford told city planners last week.

But others object to the development, fearing busier commercial activity, more traffic, reduced property values and removal of historically significant property.

The neighborhood interest _ and the division among residents _ emerged at Tuesday's Planning Commission meeting.

Commissioners had to decide whether to allow retail activity on property behind Foodtown, which would open the door for a parking lot to be built. The property had been zoned previously for multifamily residential use.

MetroGroup Development is organizing property for the project. The meeting aired the first, formal step in what is likely to be a long process involving other city boards and neighborhood debate.

"Until I arrived (at the meeting), I've never heard anyone speak very highly of that corner," said Don Mastry, the lawyer for Georgia-based MetroGroup.

"We're going to clean it up," Mastry said.

After a hearing that lasted nearly two hours, the commission voted to allow the retail use, on the condition that no structure would reach farther than 150 feet east of Fourth Street N. And Mastry agreed not to pursue rezoning on one of the lots at issue.

Commissioner Virginia Littrell dissented in the 6-1 vote, saying the neighborhood's established character "is one of historic structures."

She also expressed concern that future owners _ should CVS come and go _ would not respect the North Shore neighborhood's city-approved plan, which limits commercial development off Fourth Street N.

And she suggested that the corner should be improved in other ways.

"You don't rezone to clean up a site," Littrell said.

Twenty residents took the early opportunity to make their views known. Thirteen opposed the project and seven favored it, according to city records.

Resident Mark Woodley spoke against it, saying later that it "was really sort of sprung on people" suddenly. He vowed that opponents will keep up the fight.

"There are several ways to stop the project in its tracks," Woodley said a day after the commission meeting. "We're not dead in the water."

The rezoning action, which has the effect of an ordinance, now must go before the City Council for approval. A public hearing will be held next month.

A drugstore site plan has not been filed with the city. When it is, it likely will be subject to consideration by the city's Environmental Development Commission, and open to more public debate.

The developers will present plans to the North Shore Neighborhood Association's next general membership meeting, June 19, said association vice president Steve Lange.

Lange said the organization's role is to "facilitate everybody in North Shore. We are here to help the neighborhood, and that means everybody."

Project opponents should be heard, Lange said.

"These folks have a right to address their concerns and come forward and try to make the project as successful as possible from their perspective," he said.

The property that Foodtown sits on has not yet been sold, although Mastry said he believes it is under contract. He said he knew no details. Neither Foodtown owner Chol U. Lee nor MetroGroup representatives could be reached.

MetroGroup develops stores for the CVS chain, Mastry said.

Based in Woonsocket, R.I., CVS has about 4,100 stores in 25 states and Washington, D.C., according to the company's Web site. The first CVS opened in Lowell, Mass., in 1963 under the name "Consumer Value Store."

CVS has several stores in north Florida and in Georgia, but a store on the Food Town site would be the first in peninsular Florida.

"They have the most drugstores of any (drug company) in the country," Mastry said.

Last year, the Sembler Co. met with North Shore's board of directors to discuss an Eckerd store on the Foodtown site. But the project never got much beyond the talking stage.

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