Rite Aid, on the corner of Fourth and Raritan Avenues, is undergoing a significant renovation that may result in beneficial new health and well-being services for Highland Park, but is also creating some controversy. The renovation has riled a group of Highland Park residents concerned about the health and well-being of the downtown community.
The specific source of displeasure concerns the apparent elimination of most of the store’s front and side windows. Sometime in April 2015 Rite Aid built a new interior wall that blocked the windows along Fourth Avenue, and more recently, also walled off one of the windows along Raritan Avenue.
In 2007, Rite Aid came before the Highland Park Planning Board with a site plan application for changing the façade of the building. The site plan was approved, but one of the requirements of the approval was to keep the windows on Fourth Avenue. The planning concept was that a windowless façade is a deterrent to a pedestrian friendly downtown.
The store manager Mark Kohlhepp said that the former window areas would be attractively decorated with “graphics” and would look “better” than the old windows, when the work was completed. He indicated that the renovation would feature more attractive interior space and allow for an expansive product line focusing on wellness.
But Highland Park resident and Redevelopment Agency member Jeffrey Perlman is unmoved by the Rite Aid argument. “It is just wrong. Aside from the fact that faux windows look terrible, the point is that covering the windows is a clear violation of the site plan approval. If Rite Aid did not like the constraints of the site plan approval, then they should have gone back before the Planning Board. There is a process that needs to be followed and Rite Aid didn’t follow it. Allowing the situation to continue sets a poor precedent that undermines the borough’s effort to create an attractive downtown environment.” Mr. Perlman said.
Mainstreet Highland Park represents the business owners in the downtown and is charged with making Highland Park a successful business district. According to Main Street Board Chair Jenni Chapman, “This is bad for the entire business district. If we want to be a viable downtown shopping district we need to create public spaces that are attractive and that feel welcoming. That is why we have zoning and code rules and design standards. I’m confident that the Borough will enforce its own laws that protect the downtown and the other merchants and land owners. We are investigating to better understand the situation.”
Neither Mr. Perlman nor Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler was willing to play the blame game regarding who was responsible for the situation. Rite Aid was granted permits by the municipality for the renovation, but it is unclear whether the plans for the renovation indicated how the windows were going to be altered.
“We are working to resolve the situation,” said Mayor Brill Mittler.
The CEO and Chairman of Rite Aid John Stanley is quoted on the Rite Aid website as saying the following: “One of our core values at Rite Aid is to be a caring neighbor. We strive to be involved in community activities in meaningful ways and are committed to reflecting the diversity of each community we serve.”
Several residents of Highland Park are hoping that Mr. Stanley is committed to living up to his corporation’s mantra and reflecting – through windows – the wishes of the Highland Park community.