Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Walgreens plans Castro pharmacy expansion


Walgreens would like to expand its satellite pharmacy on 18th Street, far right, to include the shuttered Suds Laundromat, center. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Walgreens plans to expand its satellite pharmacy on 18th Street into a vacant space next door in order to revamp how it interacts with its clients. The redesign would allow the national drugstore chain's pharmacists to meet with clients one-on-one in a more private setting than the current postage stamp sized storefront allows.

The redesign is especially needed in its California stores, company officials argue, because many of the state's enrollees in the AIDS Drug Assistance Program and Medi-Cal get their medications at Walgreens. The Castro location has a particularly large clientele who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS.

"We're trying to get past the idea one hands pills to people and that's all we do," said Glen Pietrandoni, Walgreens' HIV/AIDS and hepatitis program manager, who has been overseeing rollout of the new pharmacy layouts at stores across the country. "It is not about dispensing any more drugs. We want to provide a clinical value."

The store is also in talks with Project Inform, a locally based HIV treatment and advocacy agency, on a collaboration in which the nonprofit would be given space in the reconfigured pharmacy. In another attempt to make the project more palatable to the local community, the company plans to also build a meeting room that could be utilized by neighborhood groups.

But some Castro merchants have met the expansion plans with skepticism. When the plans were discussed at the May meeting of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, some in the audience said they did not want to see a chain store take up so much storefront space in the heart of the city's gay neighborhood.

Others recalled how the company "gobbled up" several much loved hangouts when it expanded its Castro Street location. Walgreens first came into the neighborhood in 1980 when it took over the Star Pharmacy on the corner of 18th and Castro streets. It then, in 1997, expanded into the three storefronts next door, which housed Rossi's Meats, the Castro Caf�, and the Phoenix gay bar, according to the Web site Uncle Donald's Castro Street.

The company then opened its satellite pharmacy space across the street on 18th Street. Longtime merchants recalled that, at the time, the company made promises it would not need to further expand. Patrick Batt, the former MUMC president who helped extract community benefits from Pottery Barn and Diesel when those chains opened stores in the Castro, questioned what Walgreens was willing to do financially for the community in return for approval of its latest expansion.

"We get the altruism," said Batt, who claimed during the meeting that Target, which has no stores in San Francisco, has given back more money than Walgreens to the Castro neighborhood.

Pietrandoni, who is openly gay and has worked with Walgreens for 12 years, said in an interview a day after the contentious MUMC meeting that the merchants, in fact, hadn't understood the company's intentions.

"We really want to do the right thing for the patient," he said, adding that Walgreens has donated to both the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and AIDS Walk, as well as countless other nonprofit groups.

Stephen Chase, Walgreens' loss prevention manager for Northern California and Nevada, has been a patient at the 18th Street pharmacy for nine years. HIV-positive for the last decade, he said his managers understand when he wakes up with nausea three times a week.

"I live in the East Bay but I go to the Castro location because I know the pharmacy specializes in [HIV]," said Chase.

He said the company's plans for the pharmacy would be a benefit for himself and other customers.

"I take all kinds of vitamins and HIV medications and other medicines. My greatest fear is there being a negative interaction," said Chase. "One of the pharmacists sat down with me one day and spent 30 minutes going over what I take."

The company plans to add up to five employees, including a nutritionist, to the staff to better attend to customers and their questions. The design plans call for moving the entrance to the pharmacy to the left side of the vacant Suds Laundromat space next door.

The current pharmacy space would be opened up and four modules would be installed where customers could meet face-to-face with a pharmacist. The meeting room would be in back of the laundry space with shelving for various products leading toward the back.

The concept came out of Pietrandoni's working at the LGBT-focused Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago.

"Walgreens paid for me to work there. Twelve years ago we opened a store there and I learned a lot," he said.

Called specialty pharmacies, the company in early May opened one with a focus on diabetes at St. Luke's Hospital in the Mission and will open several others throughout the city. It has opened HIV-focused specialty pharmacies at the gay-focused Legacy Project in Houston and the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs.

"As a pharmacist, our profession is about giving back. Here is a store where we are allowing a pharmacist to do his profession," said Pietrandoni. "These are not services we will get paid for. It is going to cost the company to do this."

Pietrandoni expects to return to MUMC sometime this summer to update the merchants' group. Walgreens spokeswoman Tiffany Bruce said Wednesday the company is still in the initial planning phase and that the start of construction has not been determined.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who has long complained that the main store's window displays are not stylish enough for such a prominent corner, said he plans to meet with company executives from both the local and national offices to better understand the project and what contributions to the local community the store makes each year.

"Their community contributions are far more extensive than the individual cited at the meeting," said Dufty. "The local management, I want to meet with them before their next MUMC meeting."

The company is still ironing out the details of what role Project Inform will play in the expanded space. Pietrandoni said the company approached Project Inform because its brochures on HIV treatments complement the services that will be offered at the new pharmacy. Preliminary plans call for the nonprofit to have two computer kiosks in the space and volunteers to be stationed there to answer questions.

Glen Tanking, Project Inform's administrative director, said no agreements have been reached but that the agency would like to have a presence in the Castro.

"We are in early preliminary discussions with Walgreens," Tanking said this week. "We would like a presence for our constituents in the Castro, that would be fine."

The agency does not intend to move its offices into the space, said Tanking, although it does plan to relocate from its current location at 13th and Mission streets to new quarters somewhere in the city.

"Our lease is coming up at the end of the year and we will be relocating somewhere in the city. The Castro is not a priority by any means," said Tanking, adding that the cost of leasing the new space will determine where Project Inform moves. "We just need more space that fits our needs better."

For the last five years, Project Inform has maintained a budget of $1.5 million. The agency underwent a restructuring over a year ago, going from an executive director led approach to a three-person management team that includes founding director Martin Delaney, Tanking, and development director Elisabeth Loeffler.

"We felt that it was very difficult for one individual to take on all of that and it would be better for each one to focus on their specific areas," said Tanking.

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