|Mayor's role in blocking pharmacy eyed
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino personally intervened to help stop a chain drugstore from opening a few blocks from a Roslindale pharmacy owned by a close friend and political supporter.In an interview this week, Menino acknowledged his role in the dispute, now pending in the Massachusetts Land Court.He said that his friend, Sullivan's Pharmacy owner Gregory Laham, complained to him about the proposal by the Brooks Pharmacy chain, and he then urged his inspectional services commissioner, Kevin J. Joyce, to ''take a very serious look'' at zoning issues affecting the plan. Joyce's agency later rejected the plan.Under oath in a deposition last year, Joyce denied that he had spoken to ''anyone associated with or in Mayor Menino's office about Brooks Pharmacy.''Informed this week of Menino's conflicting assertion, Joyce told the Globe:
''He's mistaken ... I never talked to him about it. ... He could have talked to someone on my staff, but I never talked to him about it.''Menino, who has received more than $9,000 in campaign contributions from Laham, his relatives, and employees since 1993, backpedalled after being apprised of the discrepancy. ''He does not recall ever speaking directly to Kevin Joyce and telling him to do this or do that,'' Menino's spokeswoman Carole Brennan said late yesterday.
''He was not giving him any direction about what to do on the Brooks plan,'' she said.The Roslindale case raises questions about favoritism and the city's zoning practices. It also highlights the Menino administration's elastic policy on the proliferation of national and regional chain stores - that now provide everything from coffee and automotive supplies to hardware and prescription drugs.Menino said he interceded in Roslindale not because of politics or his personal relationship with Laham but to protect small businesses in the area.
''Not just Sullivan's, the little grocery stores in the neighborhood too,'' the mayor said. ''That's what happens to them. These corporate people come into the small-business district - after these small-businessmen over the years invested a lot of their money in the improvement of Roslindale Square - you're going to have a corporate guy come in and just sap all the money out of the community, and they don't give anything back.''''I don't like the idea of chains coming to neighborhoods like Brooks and Osco and Costco, because they don't care about the neighborhoods, and they don't do anything for the neighborhoods,'' said Menino.
Neighborhood leaders, led by the Roslindale Village Main Street program, also strongly opposed the Brooks plan.''It's not just Tom Menino,'' the mayor said.There are at least 47 chain pharmacies in Boston, most in neighborhood business districts similar to Roslindale's. A number have opened since Menino took office eight years ago. Menino could not identify any others he tried to block, but his spokeswoman said he has opposed chain stores in other instances, including a McDonald's and Starbucks, both in the North End, a Pep Boys auto service in Roslindale, and some family restaurant chains.But the mayor evidently has sliding standards for local retail districts. For instance, one of Menino's proudest neighborhood initiatives - the $13-million Mecca Mall in Roxbury's Grove Hall - relies on chain stores, including a CVS pharmacy.
Last December, Menino hailed that Woonsocket, R.I.-based drugstore chain for injecting life into an area that has struggled for years to turn the economic corner.In Brighton Center, a local florist complained that Menino's groundbreaking urban Main Streets revitalization program underwrote renovations in a storefront leased to a low-cost chain, KaBloom, sometimes called the Starbucks of florists. The city had no legitimate zoning leverage with the landlord in that case, Menino said.The 19 commercial districts that fall under the six-year-old Main Streets program include eight chain drugstores. But Sullivan's Pharmacy is the only drugstore out of 121 businesses in the Roslindale Village Main Streets district, according to the city's Web site.Laham, who was on vacation and could not be reached yesterday, has operated Sullivan's for 25 years. It has grown to be much more than a mom-and-pop store, now billing itself as one of the largest independent pharmacies in the country.After the inspectional services department rejected the Brooks application on Jan. 26, 1999, R&L Properties bypassed the city's Zoning Board of Appeal and filed suit in the Land Court, seeking ''declaratory judgment'' on an interpretation of a section of the city's zoning code.
The trial was last Sept. 11 before Judge Karyn F. Scheier, who has not yet ruled on the matter.At issue is whether Brooks, under the code, is a ''local'' business or a ''general'' business, requiring a special zoning permit for the Washington Street site.During trial, Joyce testified that zoning officials make a distinction between ''large retailers ... [that] serve a major part of the city ... as opposed to serving the needs of a local neighborhood.'' They determined that the Brooks plan, a 10,800-square-foot store with 58 parking spaces, constituted a ''big box''-type store, not what Joyce called a ''mom-and-pop'' business. Virtually all of the criteria he used in making that distinction are not spelled out in the code, he said.In response, Brooks submitted studies of four area stores showing that the great majority of its prescription drug customers live within a mile of the pharmacies.The battle in Roslindale has played out in other parts of Boston, too, as neighborhoods struggle with chain stores.''When the little guy has made a contribution to the neighborhood and then needs a jolt from the city to keep him in business, I don't disagree with that,'' said Joe Park, of the Ellis Neighborhood Association, which resisted the South End's first Starbucks two years ago. ''I do disagree where a business is being kept in business just because he's a friend.''