Greater Greater Washington

Development


Citizens band together to make Kennedy Street NW a retail destination

While new investment and street life arrive in Northwest DC neighborhoods like Petworth, Brightwood, and Takoma, Kennedy Street has been slow to respond. But a group of local citizens seeks to change that.


A woman walks down Kennedy Street NW. All photos by the author.

Shuttered storefronts define Kennedy Street today, despite its population with rising incomes, newly-arrived young families, and relatively low crime. Folks who arrived in the neighborhood ten, five, or one year ago all say they thought the same thing when they first arrived: "Kennedy Street will arrive any time now." Long-term residents also complain about the lack of services, and are resigned to driving to other neighborhoods for restaurants, groceries, arts and entertainment.

Growing weary of hearing complaints and disappointments, a group of citizens and I started the all-volunteer Kennedy Street Business and Development Association (KSBDA) in January help hasten the evolution.

Geography and the street experience hold Kennedy Street back

Challenges beyond supply and demand explain why Kennedy Street has been slow to change. The street is oriented east-west, against the grain of the city's main north-south commuter routes, and it is bisected by the imposing four-lane Missouri Avenue, isolating the eastern end of Kennedy Street from the rest of the corridor closer to Georgia Avenue.


Retaining walls pinch the sidewalks, making it hard for stores to thrive.

The area's public transport connections are not ideal, as much of the street is just beyond walking distance of the Fort Totten, Takoma, and Petworth metro stations. Except along Georgia Avenue, bus service is limited outside commuter hours.

The street itself creates a difficult environment for thriving retail. Fortuitously, Kennedy Street is zoned C-2-A between Georgia Avenue and North Capitol Street, permitting a mix of housing and commercial uses. But many of the true commercial buildings are clustered around corners with row houses in between, creating gaps in potential retail clusters. In some places, alleys, the sides of houses, wooden fences, and back yards break up the street wall.

Meanwhile, the sidewalks are narrow, with retaining walls and telephone poles creating bottlenecks. Though there are few places to plant, residents and business owners alike lament the street's general lack of greenery. Some commercial buildings have no alley access at all, requiring business owners to leave waste receptacles on the sidewalk.

Limited support for Kennedy Street

The city's support for the street appears uncoordinated and uneven. After a model effort in community buy-in, the Office of Planning issued a Revitalization Plan for the street in 2008. The plan is as valid today as it was six years ago. But few of its recommendations have been implemented.


Shops along Kennedy Street.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) offered $3.75 million in funding for streetscape improvements, but it's tied up a separate $3.1 million fund to reconfigure the intersection of Kennedy Street with Missouri and Kansas avenues, both of which are behind schedule. Quick fixes like new parking lines, street furniture, and bike racks have been generally unrealized. City programs to improve building facades and invest in businesses have barely touched Kennedy Street.

Oddly, the eastern portion is not eligible for several city incentives, though the commercial buildings there are in worse shape. Pepco has refused requests to bury or even reduce the number of overhead wires, citing the cost and reliability of the existing infrastructure.

Businesses are determined to make it work

Still, some current businesses are determined to grow with the neighborhood. Culture Coffee, a community-oriented cafe at 7th and Kennedy streets NW, has fast become the neighborhood's third space. A block away, a new outpost of Taqueria DF will add patio seating for tacos and cervezas this summer. Local take-out favorite Andrene's, at 3rd and Kennedy, has pledged to remove its plexiglass windows and open up to the street.

KSBDA has found some businesses who seek locations here, but would need to buy and invest in a space. Most owners are only looking to lease, but don't have the capital to install commercial kitchens, quality floors or new facades. Some owners are speculating on appreciation, but their marginal tenants or unavailable vacant storefronts hold the street back.

More than a few prime commercial locations are shuddered and their status is entirely unclear: are they operating irregularly, defunct, or hiding from city regulators? Other owners are absent, often elderly, and have little faith that the street could ever change. Two owners have even tried to talk me out of starting a business on the street!

So how do we overcome these challenges to help Kennedy Street fulfill the potential that residents and businesses all see? How can a movement of volunteer residents and true mom-and-pop businesses help the street become a walkable, welcoming destination, without turning to major outside developers with no attachment to how we define our neighborhood?

Many of us are ready to take action to help grow the street from the bottom up, but we need your help, your lessons, your advice, and your resources to get it done.

Myles G. Smith formed the Kennedy Street Business and Development Association with like-minded business owners and residents to revitalize Kennedy Street, a long-overlooked commercial corner of upper northwest DC. He has visited some oddly-planned cities in while working internationally, and is fascinated by the effects of planning on society. 

Comments

Add a comment »

Nice piece. I would argue though that 5th St serves as a pretty major bus corridor outside of just commuter hours. There are buses running frequently along this corridor in the middle of the day and late at night.

by Kate on Feb 21, 2014 10:34 am • linkreport

Gentrification is still pushing north from Petworth. Brightwood north of Gallatin street still has a way to go - you can tell because there are still rowhouses for sale for less than $400,000.

Give it another 10 years and Kennedy will grow up just like 11th st NW did in Columbia Heights in the past few years.

by Nick on Feb 21, 2014 10:49 am • linkreport

I am interested in the area, but from where I live it is not quite walkable, 1.25 miles or so.

For those doing work on marketing Kennedy St - how much disposable income is actually within walking distance of the new shops?

by Andy on Feb 21, 2014 11:07 am • linkreport

Kennedy Street has so much potential. It just needs an anchor restaurant and/or retail space to draw people to the strip. The intersection at Kennedy, Kansas, and Missouri is problematic, but nothing that can't be overcome. It may be the case that Kennedy Street becomes two distinct strips, each with its own character: one from Missouri to Georgia and the other from Missouri to North Capitol. I urge the city to move forward with the implementation of the long-standing Small Area Plan and intersection redesign. The candidate who focuses on Kennedy Street will get my vote.

by Kennedy Street Neighbor on Feb 21, 2014 11:27 am • linkreport

I'd agree with Nick. The whole area between Columbia Heights and Silver Spring has little neighborhood strips that worked wonderfully before the advent of large stores and malls. With the street car planned for Georgia Avenue, many of those areas will be rejuvinated, especially as young families continue to move into those areas.

As much as I'm a fan of small local businesses though, I wouldn't be overly concerned about chains and the like. For better or for worse, they seem part of the formula for rejuvination of many an area. I think (hope) the fine grained scale of stores on Kennedy will ensure that there's a decent balance of large and small retailers.

The other thing I would encourage is more development. Where as people would walk to many of their stores in the 1920's and 30's, today you need a good amount of density to have the critical mass many retailers depend on.

by Thayer-D on Feb 21, 2014 11:30 am • linkreport

I don't think street life can exist without transit. Compare say the downtown area of Los Angeles City, Washington, and New York City. Where there is rail (especially but also high quality bus) transit you will see many more people walking/biking because of the concetration of people. Density plays a role too. I think the Georgia Avenue streetcar has a lot of potential to create intense nodes of activity if DC can get together to upzone appropriate parcels ane encourage mixed uses along its eventual route.

by BTA on Feb 21, 2014 11:43 am • linkreport

Another great component of a commercial district is public spaces. There is no metro station or large park to provide a focal point. But maybe converting an empty lot into a pocket park/outdoor seating area could provide a gathering place.

by BTA on Feb 21, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

DDOT should build the portion of the streetcar from Takoma (because it won't take another 10 years to get permission from Maryland transit authorities) to GA Avenue-Petworth first and start running trains on that section of track. Of the North-South transit corridor being considered for streetcar, this area is the least well served by public transportation. Put prominent stops at Kennedy Street, Walmart, and the new Walter Reed development.

by David G. on Feb 21, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

Although I have no idea how well the store functions for the neighborhood, I just love the sign on Target Liquors listing its phone number as "TA9-7000" suggesting it's been there since the early 1960s.

by thm on Feb 21, 2014 12:07 pm • linkreport

I am not particularly familiar with this area of DC, but I recently biked the length of the Kennedy Street commercial corridor and wondered how such a low-density neighborhood could support so much retail space when there are other commercial corridors like Georgia Avenue nearby. Apparently it does not, so perhaps a more effective strategy would be to redevelop some of the existing commercial properties as higher-density residential, and concentrate the retail in a few more focused nodes.

by jimble on Feb 21, 2014 12:08 pm • linkreport

Kennedy Street: Ahhhh-sk not what your street can do for you, ahhhh-sk what you can do for your street.

by Oliver on Feb 21, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport

@BTA: Exactly. Lack of frequent, reliable transit is what's holding areas like Brightwood and 16th Street Heights and farther reaches of NE from reaching their full potential (some of that lack of transit, in turn, is driven by a lack of density).

by LowHeadways on Feb 21, 2014 1:16 pm • linkreport

@Kate: bus service isn't bad on 5th, true, though it does not run downtown outside rush hours. That would be a help. Buses are still less frequent at the eastern end (64, 60, K6).

@Nick: we're hoping to go faster than 10 years, but also, our vision is more modest. The respondents of our resident survey don't want 'gentrification' as it has played out in areas like H St NE and Columbia Heights, and many new residents chose this place to avoid the some aspects of those kinds of neighborhoods. But, we still do have normal cafes, bars, grocers, and basic retail needs.

@Andy: The 230 respondents of our online resident survey live within a short block of the street, and the average household income is over $100,000. Houses that go for less than $400,000 are bought in cash by investors, who flip for an average price of ~$475,000 at this point.

@Kennedy Street Neighbor: My vote too!

@Thayer-D: We'd welcome density too. More housing means more customers.

@BTA: lack of public space is an issue, and there are few options. We hope the city will support us on this, and it is envisioned in their plan as a goal.

by Myles G Smith on Feb 21, 2014 3:28 pm • linkreport

I think saying Pepco refuses to bury the lines is a bit misleading. There needs to be a reason for burying the lines other than "overhead lines aren't as aesthetically pleasing". Research was conducted (confirmed by the public service commission) which concluded that the exorbitant cost was not worth the venture especially if the lines are reliable.

by Randy on Feb 21, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

@thm: He has indeed been there since the 60s. Nice guy. But, the space could serve a broader swath of the neighborhood than it is now.

@jimble: Its a good question, very worth studying. OP's Small Area Plan envisions wrap-around, mixed-use, 4-5 story buildings at the corners to increase density, take advantage where there is transit, and attract more potential customers. Many of the landowners are not selling buildings in these locations, however, and developers have not yet taken interest. Hopefully we can change that.

@LowHeadways: Totally agree. Commuter patterns on bus seem to suggest that there should be direct metro from K Street to Silver Spring up the North-South Corridor, but we're stuck with a more modest Streetcar plan. But, we'll take what we can get at this point.

by Myles G Smith on Feb 21, 2014 4:00 pm • linkreport

I think Kennedy St Neighbor makes a good point in that it feels like two distinct different strips (maybe b/c of the length of the corridor and walkability). If we use 5th St as the central point then the residents to the east are probably moreso concerned with the revitalization going back to North Capitol (CVS, former Jackie Lees space, Adrenes, etc.) whereas those west of 5th are more concerned with everything going towards Ga Ave. Has a specific stretch been designated as the focal point of the turn around (at least in the short run)?

by Jayhawk on Feb 21, 2014 4:06 pm • linkreport

I think it's great that you're doing this. It'll be the only way that the corridor improves.

But you have to focus. It's too disjoint now, with four different centers, most of the spaces are substandard, the location isn't conducive to people walking there, and most importantly, there isn't enough population to support it.

E.g., Upshur/Petworth have the Metro. Takoma has the Metro. Takoma is adding housing, but had a commercial district to build on. Petworth is changing its building stock in the commercial area, and has the traditional Upshur stretch to build on. By comparison, the rest of Georgia Ave. lacks Metrorail and is disjoint, which is why it is suboptimal.

But if you can improve the places that have potential, and build from there, it can build.

Since you live there, it's in your interest to do something.

I don't know what kind of technical assistance you're getting from the city. I would highly suggest you join the Main Street Center and send a couple people to this year's conference in Detroit. Alternatively, you can try to go to state Main Street type meetings and trainings. E.g., NJ at least used to have really good ones.

It's a slog. I like planning. I don't really like working with merchants because they can be pretty obstinate.

I highly recommend that you read:

- Downtown Revitalization Handbook 2nd ed., Marketing an Image for Main Street, and Step by Step Market Analysis all published by the Nat. Main Street Center. It's hard to find them now since they f*ed up their website.

this report by David Milder on business recruitment, http://www.danth.com/downtown-revitalization/business-recruitment-book

and reports from ULI, including this one: http://www.uli.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/TP_NeighborhoodRetail.ashx_1.pdf

probably the best overall website source that's free is from U Wisc. Extension, the Downtown Market Analysis Toolbox, http://fyi.uwex.edu/downtown-market-analysis/

There are also hundreds of other links in my blog.

by Richard L. Layman on Feb 21, 2014 4:06 pm • linkreport

To really understand what's up and if you only have time to read one publication, I'd probably recommend this one:

Marketing an Image for Main Street

by Richard L. Layman on Feb 21, 2014 4:08 pm • linkreport

Oops, DRH is now called "Revitalizing Main Street."

- http://www.downtowndevelopment.com/revitalizing_main_street.php

by Richard L. Layman on Feb 21, 2014 4:43 pm • linkreport

@Richard: THANK YOU. We are not career planners so your advise and these resources are really helpful.

by Myles G Smith on Feb 21, 2014 5:44 pm • linkreport

@Randy Re:Pepco: you may be right, I chose a harsh word there, and generally we accept data-driven decisions. But the problem with the wires goes beyond aesthetics and reliability. The street is so narrow it's impassible for wheelchairs, strollers, people walking side-by-side at many points. I'm not sure we could make a walkable sidewalk that is up to DC's own code standard with the poles in place.

by Myles G Smith on Feb 21, 2014 5:47 pm • linkreport

What could you possible put there to draw more people ? The only thing that could probably draw people to the street is a Mcdonalds, CVS, Wallgreens or something of that nature which I bet many people on here would hate.

The truth of the matter is most of the people wont shop along the street or many other streets like it since there are no national brands/chains along it. They would go to Silver Spring or Takoma Park in Maryland or somewhere along Georgia Ave, New Hampshire Ave or Riggs Roads.

Anything that does go there I bet 90% of the community wont shop there unless it is a fastfood restaurant, national chain or corner/liquor store.

by kk on Feb 21, 2014 6:09 pm • linkreport

I have lived in the Kennedy St area for 7 years. In the past year I've seen more potential than ever. I'm thrilled that Culture Coffee is now in the neighborhood. I've been waiting for something walkable and quaint for years. I hope businesses start to see that there are residents that are ready to spend money in our neighborhood.

by R.K. on Feb 21, 2014 9:27 pm • linkreport

@kk: understand your skepticism, but our experience and resident survey results doesn't play that out. Culture Coffee attracts a dozens for beer and wine poetry readings on a Wednesday night. They don't even have a permanent liquor license. And of the 230+ online surveys we've gotten so far, 91% want a normal sit-down restaurant. No, it's not going to be H Street, but there's no reason it can't offer more.

by Myles G Smith on Feb 22, 2014 9:38 am • linkreport

@ Myles G Smith

Out of the total population of the area whom do you expect to become customers from age 13 to lets say 90 for the retail?

Do you expect the 13-21, 21-30, 30-50, or 50+ age crowd and what income ranges and ethnic backgrounds do you think will shop at these businesses ? Out of the total area being 100 % what percentage do you think will be actually shop at these retailers?

From about Georgia Ave to North Capitol and north and south of Kennedy Street for about 1 and 1/2 miles there is probably somewhere between 600 and 3000 residents. How many do you ever think will shop at these local non chain businesses vs any chains or shopping areas with local stores and chains nearby ?

Do you expect many people to walk to the business, drive or take transit and what will be unique to these places that could not be done elsewhere to create a sustainable business that will not close within 5 years of opening. What stops any national chain restaurant from being the normal sit-down restaurant in that area and killing all other businesses ?

What makes you think people will come here rather than somewhere on Georgia Ave nearby?

by kk on Feb 22, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport

@kk

Re: "From about Georgia Ave to North Capitol and north and south of Kennedy Street for about 1 and 1/2 miles there is probably somewhere between 600 and 3000 residents."

According to census data, your numbers are way, way off. The two census blocks that include Kennedy Street NW from Georgia Avenue to North Capitol both have between 5,018 - 6,601 people. These blocks go north and south only 3-5 blocks either direction. An area that is one and a half miles in either direction would include many more people than that, as an area that large would reach nearly to the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station on the south and to Takoma on the north.

You can find a map showing census data here: http://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=432703f6abd745c18e56bc653bbf95d4&extent=-77.3528,38.7433,-76.7026,39.0655

by David G. on Feb 22, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

@ David G

Thanks, David I was guessing from the amount of houses around the area being a few hundred and thinking about 2 people per house and thinking of the area from about Farragut Street to Sheridan Street bound by Georgia, North Capitol & Blair.
I didn't think of the apartments on Georgia, North Capitol, New Hampshire, Kennedy, Missouri, or any other streets and households that could have more people. I was strictly think of row houses and the few detached homes.

by kk on Feb 22, 2014 1:21 pm • linkreport

@ David G

And yes I realized I was off on the distance

by kk on Feb 22, 2014 1:27 pm • linkreport

What about a grocery store? Looks like the only competitors are the Safeway on Piney Branch and the eventual one in Petworth and a Yes!. Seems like the Brightwood Park area could definitely sustain one. Obviously it would involve assembling a lot of parcels (maybe too many) but they area great draw to get foot traffic if my Giant and Harris Teeter in Columbia Heights are any example to go by. Petworth Safeway would probably be a good aspirational model if you get a mixed use building with a couple of stories of housing above it.

by BTA on Feb 22, 2014 2:00 pm • linkreport

@BTA: Ahh, but then there's the Wal-Marts. The first opened at Georgia and Missouri, the second will open this year at Riggs and South Dakota, a 10 minute walk from Kennedy Street and North Capitol. Both will have supermarkets.

We might hope for a Yes! or similar one day, but I think the demand for such is probably long term. Though Trader Joe's seems to attract people from anywhere, we don't have the space, traffic conditions, or parking available.

by Myles G Smith on Feb 22, 2014 5:38 pm • linkreport

Grocery stores have a retail trade area of 3-5 miles as I have pointed out ad infinitum. This matters because (1) CNU advocates a short walk to a grocery store, which is out of sorts with industry structure and (2) it means that most of DC isn't a food desert.

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/02/mapping-retail-trade-areas-for-dc.html

... wrt Kennedy St., the issue is that even on a 1.5 mile radius the area has plenty of grocery stores (new Safeway coming, Yes, new Walmart, new Walmart coming, Safeway at Piney Branch, etc.)

2. wrt a "sit down restaurant", without one you're toast. See

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2013/05/updating-richards-rules-for-restaurant.html

3. Sorry, in part it's my fault that the Kennedy Theater was destroyed to make a senior center. (It was a tradeoff for saving the building at 5th and K Streets NE, which I made an issue back when I lived in the H St. neighborhood.)

It could have been a cool place, like the Creative Arts Alliance at the Patterson in Highlandtown, Baltimore, which would have been a unique draw.

4. As another way of thinking about your opportunities and differentiation, you might be interested in this post:

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2013/12/food-co-ops-as-potential-anchors-of.html

although I wouldn't say focus on a food coop, but the idea of how to differentiate a commercial district to make people want to go there. One advantage probably is funky spaces and low rents.

Even on Upshur, rents approach $40/s.f. which prices out funky.

by Richard L. Layman on Feb 22, 2014 6:17 pm • linkreport

Kk:

Your numbers are SCARILY off. On my block of 7th between Farragut and Gallatin, there are 30 row houses. It is almost 100 square blocks between Farragut and Sheriden, and GA Ave to N Cap. This means there are roughly 200 blocks (100 NS blocks, and 100 EW blocks.) Even assuming only 75% are residential, and density is only 20/block, that still is 3000 housing units. 3 people per unit gets you to 9000 residents. This counts no apartments or basement apartments, so my guess is this number is actually a bit low.

by Kyle-w on Feb 23, 2014 12:45 am • linkreport

@ Kyle-w

Ok I get it and I assumed 2 people per unit not 3 when In reality some are probably 0 (I know two people that own residences there and don't live in them), others 1, some 2, some 3, a few 4 , maybe 1 out of every 15 has 5 people

by kk on Feb 23, 2014 1:34 am • linkreport

In my opinion, the Senior Wellness Center is one of the worst things that could have gone into an almost entire block of Kennedy Street. In terms of economic development, is it adding value to the street?

Relatively new to the area, I thought only a portion of the building was the Senior Center, only to walk by and see three of four storefronts I thought would become restaurants, retail or bars were in fact be part of the Senior Center too. That stretch of Kennedy has the best transportation infrastructure, but has been re-purposed for an under-utilized complex that caters to only a fraction of the community and in very little way helps economic growth.

A historic building like the Theatre could have been partially re-purposed as a unique restaurant or bar or range of retail that would have been more of a destination to a larger demographic. Instead it caters to a few and only for regular business hours, making that block dead after 5pm.

by KennedyStResident on Feb 23, 2014 9:32 am • linkreport

@ KennedyStResident

A bar is the same as a senior center it only caters to only a fraction of the community; it does not cater to those under 21, or those that don't drink. The best option is retail that caters to all.

by kk on Feb 23, 2014 9:45 pm • linkreport

Kennedy = Meanstreets! At least that is the way I remember them.

by NE John on Feb 24, 2014 12:25 am • linkreport

Mean street to main street... at least you got a slogan!

by BTA on Feb 24, 2014 9:40 am • linkreport

I do think the comparisons to 11th st NW, Upshur St. NW, or H St. NE 7 years ago are fair for Kennedy St. What Kennedy St. needs is for someone to invest in a restaurant/bar that becomes a bit of a destination. The Jackie Lee's space, I think, is the most obvious location. The most recent proprietor couldn't build a diverse clientele there. Maybe the timing is better now.

by Norris on Feb 24, 2014 10:54 am • linkreport

@ Norris

I do think the street and surrounding neighborhood is more than ready to support restaurant/bar at the former Jackie Lee's space. The parking on that side of Kennedy isn't terrible, and a developer's commitment and community patronage of something there might help get some businesses into the other 4 or 5 vacancies on Kennedy between the CVS at Kansas/Missouri and N. Capitol Street.

Until perception of the street changes, it will be hard to sell as a "destination," but build it and give the locals a chance to support it and show that Kennedy Street is moving in the right direction! That is what prospective businesses and buyers want to see before investing.

by KennedyStResident on Feb 24, 2014 11:10 am • linkreport

Whoever gets going on a retail project that caters to all residents will have the support of the neighborhood, and we will set out to deliver that support.

Regarding the Senior Center, it is just a shame that its closed up by 3pm, as it doesn't contribute to street life after that time. Hopefully we can get some evening uses going in that location.

by Myles G Smith on Feb 24, 2014 10:43 pm • linkreport

Nobody has made mention of the 5 or so storefront churches between Missouri and North Capitol St. I've never seen any activity from these and they take up the majority of the spaces (along with liquor stores and nail salons). I'm hoping that with Walmart coming, smaller businesses (clean grocers, hardware store, dine in restaurants) might take the risk of Kennedy St. Also, the E2,3,4 busses run on a regular schedule down Kennedy St.

by Denbdon on Mar 19, 2014 6:37 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us