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Maybe it’s no Boston, but the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, is not without its charms. It’s the fourth-largest city in the state and has been home to such notables as Ed McMahon, Bette Davis, and Jack Kerouac. It cemented its cred for Yankee ingenuity in 1880, becoming the first city in the nation to use telephone numbers.

Today, the national retail chain CVS Pharmacy has more than 5000 outlets, but the first one opened in 1963 in Lowell. CVS, according to “Fun Facts” on the City of Lowell’s website, was an acronym for Consumer Value Store.

Five decades later, CVS is gearing up to open its first outlet in Ocean Beach on January 4. But, nearly seven months after applying for a liquor license, there’s still no approval from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to place beer, wine, and spirits on the shelves.

As opening day comes closer, CVS says it’s confident of having a license in time. But if there’s a plan B in case there’s no booze, CVS is keeping it to themselves.

“We prefer not to speculate and are focused on receiving our license in time for our opening,” Mike DeAngelis, CVS director of public relations, said in an email.

When the drugstore chain first revealed more than a year ago it was sizing up the long-vacant, former Apple Tree supermarket at 4949 Santa Monica Avenue as a potential outlet, CVS made it clear it would only do so if alcohol was a part of its retail offerings.

It seemed like a slam-dunk when CVS formally submitted an application on May 15. Five months earlier, the Ocean Beach Planning Board voted to approve the license in a contentious, standing-room-only meeting. The vote was advisory-only, but the San Diego Police Department’s Vice Division subsequently gave its blessing and cited the planning board’s support as a big reason.

CVS gained more support when it negotiated a “community benefits package” with the Ocean Beach Town Council and Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association, in which the pharmacy chain pledged to be a responsible tenant and active member of the community. Some of CVS’s commitments included: hosting donation receptacles for the town council’s seasonal food and toy drive; preserving a popular existing mural on the building’s north wall unless repainted by a local artist or community fair; and allowing public use of the parking lot for special events. (CVS planned to offer free parking December 6 during the 35th Annual Ocean Beach Holiday Parade, said Steve Laub, a consultant for CVS.)

Gretchen Newsom, town-council president, said the agreement was likely the first in the nation between CVS and a community. Sharing the enthusiasm and noting the beach community’s traditional hostility to corporate chains, Laub tweeted: “...A rarity here. Great cooperation by CVS, #OBTownCouncil, #OBMainstreetAssoc.”

But many in the community still lamented the loss of the community’s only major grocery store — Apple Tree lost its lease and closed for good at the end of 2012 — and took advantage of an opportunity to file protests during a 30-day comment period. Community leaders familiar with the investigation say a total of four protests were filed, though ABC has yet to confirm the number.

ABC guidelines tell applicants to expect a license in as little as 55 days if there’s no protest. Estimates increase to 95 days if protests are withdrawn during the investigation. When protests are not withdrawn, ABC estimates 175 days to make a decision. The CVS investigation is now well past the 200-day mark.

“There is no set time frame for the application investigation to be completed. The application is still under investigation and I cannot provide you a possible completion date at this time,” Jennifer Hill, supervisor for ABC’s San Diego district office, said in an email.

Hill would not say what was holding up the investigation. “Each investigation has its own circumstances that are addressed and affect the…timeline,” she said.

Denny Knox, executive director of the Mainstreet Association, said she expected CVS to eventually obtain a liquor license but suggested the length of the investigation was not fair to the drugstore chain.

“Nothing surprises me,” Knox said in an email, “[Protests] can really slow things down and cost the company a fortune in wasted time.”

In the meantime, it’s full speed ahead for the pharmacy and its grand opening, Laub said. The remodel of the building, which features an all-glass front and soaring, curved roof that gives away its former identity as a Safeway supermarket, is nearly complete. Renovation efforts were careful to preserve this distinctive “Safeway Mission Architecture,” which, Laub said, was named after a Safeway building on Mission Avenue in San Francisco.

CVS is hanging out the “Help Wanted” shingle next week and will accept applications onsite, he said.

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Comments

AlexClarke Dec. 6, 2014 @ 6:25 a.m.

Yup what OB needs is another liquor store. CVS stopped selling cigarettes because they are unhealthy what about booze? Maybe weed is their plan B.

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Visduh Dec. 6, 2014 @ 8 a.m.

This saga has been most unusual. The approach taken by retailers seldom involves making a list of concessions to the "community", which in this case was an attempt to silence objections from activists in OB. Who will hold that CVS store and its management to those promises five, ten or twenty years from now? It is likely that all of this will be forgotten. Now, why there is a holdup with the liquor license, nobody knows. This store may be held hostage by the ABC because of violations in other CVS stores, and there would be no better way for the ABC to get some leverage than by delaying this approval. CVS will get its approval sooner or later, but will get it.

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Tony de Garate Dec. 7, 2014 @ 3:08 p.m.

Visduh, I've heard many express your concerns about the "community benefits package" -- both whether it's enforceable, or whether it really has any teeth to begin with. CVS concedes they see no legal repercussions if they were to thumb their nose at it -- that ultimately, it will be enforced by public pressure. However, ABC could place conditions in the license drawn from the benefits package. Placing conditions is a common method of resolving these protests, ABC told me.

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Javajoe25 Dec. 6, 2014 @ 11:06 a.m.

The number one root cause of most 911 calls and community disturbances is alcohol...and yet, the SDPD endorses another booze outlet. Job security, I guess.

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Visduh Dec. 6, 2014 @ 12:33 p.m.

The cops are smart enough to know that they can't prohibit booze. (The nation tried that once, and now supposedly everyone knows better.) The cops would rather have the stuff sold in a regulated establishment, well-lighted and enforcing ID requirements to try to keep the stuff out of the hands of underage kids. Push it underground, and then there are no regulations enforced.

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nostalgic Dec. 9, 2014 @ 12:06 a.m.

There may actually be people who want to fill their prescriptions there. I see any business with a parking lot as "open space" in this city. I prefer it to condos with bay windows overhanging the sidewalk.

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